Friday Short’n Sweet: an excerpt for everyone who’s had a rough week

The sound of the woman’s voice was driving her nuts. All sing-song and la-la-la as she prattled on and on about how well things were going in every single possible aspect of her entire life with no exceptions whatsoever. Madeline tapped her fingers on the intensely varnished bar. Then she attempted to peel the label off of her beer bottle in little strips that would spell out the word “H E L P.” Marie and her two friends were deeply in the throes of some discussion that Madeline couldn’t quite hear, their heads huddled together. The woman sang on. Madeline felt dangerously close. In a few short moments, she would no longer have a choice about it. If Dan didn’t show up very, very soon, she was going to have to spin the crooning woman around on her bar stool, slap her squarely in the face, and say, “Suffer a little, bitch!”


Photo credits:  Brassai (top),  Jacques (bottom)


“Haven of Love” part 3, excerpt from the novel “Pushing the River”

RATED R:  Pretty sure that’s what the MPAA would rate this passage, for sexual content.  Don’t read it if the content might bother you, but gosh, I sure hope that you will.

With swift and precise movement, Madeline pushed Dan backwards on the couch, threw her leg across his lap so she fully straddled him, and gripped his head between her two hands.  “Want to know what I think you should do?”  Madeline moved in, her lips, tongue, teeth showing all of the threat, and all of the promise, of a wild and starving animal.  She threw her head back, panting hard.  “Any questions?” she asked.

Taking Dan’s hand, she led him to the staircase.  With her back to him, Madeline ascended with measured, deliberate steps, resting their entangled fingers against her ass, with every intention that he pay keen attention to it.  She took her time lighting the two candles on her bedside table, her back still to Dan, waiting for the match to burn all the way down before she blew the slightest puff of air.  Standing behind her, Dan reached one hand out to caress her buttocks, took a step forward, and cupped her breast with his other hand.  They stood for a time, motionless, listening to one another’s breathing; and that marked the last instant of anticipation, or of anything languorous.  Madeline ground her ass into Dan’s pelvis, hard, and rocked it from side to side.  His fingers dug into the crotch of her jeans.

Clothing flew.  Hands could not explore fast enough, could not cover enough ground.  Lips, tongues, saliva were everywhere, all at once.  The air in the room thickened to a fecund hothouse from the blossoming of body parts and ooze of fluids.

Dan gripped her haunches and pulled her onto him, astride him as she had been on the couch.  Madeline ran her hand along his cock as she slid him inside her, and shut her eyes tight to block out any thought, any hint of any sensation, that was not the feeling of his cock reaching into her.   Dan seized her hand and enlaced his fingers with enough force that Madeline’s eyes snapped open.  Her first inclination was to gasp. She had never seen a look quite like the one on his face.  His impossibly blue eyes wide open, his body trembling, Dan looked right at her, right into her, with a hungry yearning that pronounced there would be no place for a single part of her to hide.  A sound arose from deep in her gut, a sound she was not even sure was her own.  And when that sound reached up through her body and spilled from her mouth, she was gone.

Painting by Varvara Stylidou

Photos from Flickr

“Haven of Love” (cont.) from the novel “Pushing the River”

“Would you like a house tour?  Want to see the rest of the Haven of Love?”

Strolling the myriad of rooms, Dan remained decidedly quiet.  Madeline ran her fingers along walls and gestured with giddy abandon as she dug up tidbits of historical facts about the 100-year-old house, and recounted treasured memories of her thirty years within the confines of its walls.  Dan nodded once or twice.  He knit his brow now and again.

The house tour completed, Madeline plopped down beside Dan on the sofa, their thighs pressed together.  The arc of the evening – the deep pleasure of Auggie and Bess, the astonishment of Dan actually getting it about her house, the chance to tell its stories – had left her in woozy, buoyant spirits.  She sighed aloud and rested her head against Dan’s shoulder.  He reached his arm to encircle her, kneaded her shoulder, then withdrew it.

“Are you feeling it?  Are you as totally uncomfortable as I am?”

For a split second Madeline thought he must be pulling her leg.  An attempt at a bit of ha-ha hipster ironic humor; but one quick look at his face persuaded her that this was not the case.  “What?” she said.

“You can’t tell me you’re not feeling the same.  How completely different this is from last night.  How awkward.”

No…I…I’m so sorry that you’re feeling uncomfortable.”

“Last night just flowed.  Every minute.  Flow.”  Dan sat forward on the couch, leaning as if ready to spring.

“You look like you’re thinking pretty seriously about leaving,” Madeline said.

“I am.  Thinking about it.  This is just so…weird.  I’m not sure what I should do”

Something old, and very deep, within Madeline felt a profound shame.  She tamped down the instinct to apologize over and over, to do anything, to do everything, that might possibly make Dan feel better, like her, want to stay, want to hold her, want her.  She was also aware of a flash of rage, an intense desire to slap Dan’s flow-spouting face.  Inside, a part of her screamed, “Fuck you, you arrogant fuck!”  Alongside the shame, and the blind anger, the most profound feeling of all was a wish that something, just one thing, could be simple.  Clear.  Easy.  Known.

With swift and precise movement, Madeline pushed Dan backwards on the couch, threw her leg across his lap so she fully straddled him, and gripped his head between her two hands.  “Want to know what I think you should do?”  Madeline moved in, her lips, tongue, teeth showing all of the threat, and all of the promise, of a wild and starving animal.  She threw her head back, panting hard.  “Any questions?” she asked.

All photos from Flickr

“Haven of Love,” excerpt from novel-in-progress “Pushing the River”

By the time Dan tumbleweeded through the front door and into the dining room with my Lady, Auggie and Bess had pushed their chairs back from the table in healthy respect of keeping a certain distance from the remaining rubble of pie.  Auggie and Bess looked Dan up and down while Dan looked the tumult of plates up and down, and before fifteen minutes of interesting conversational tidbits had criss-crossed the dining table, Auggie turned squarely to face his wife and said, “Well, honey, we really need to get going.”

“What?!?” Madeline said, nearly before the words were fully out of his mouth.  “Really?!?”

“Really.  Come on, babe.” And with an incredible efficiency of movement, he grabbed Bess’ hand, pulled her up from her chair, and led her towards the front door while both of them exclaimed the virtues of the food and the wine and the company, until the door shut behind them and their continued words drifted into the evening air.

On the other side of the door, the entire atmosphere inside the house shifted by the time Madeline took the twenty or so steps back to sit at the dining room table, side by side with Dan.  He gave a faint chuckle. “Nice folks.”

“The best.” Madeline said.

They sat facing the table laden with the evening’s detritus.  As if he had read the crusted plates like so many tea leaves, Dan said, “This house is so you.  You are everywhere.”

“Really?” Madeline retorted, more than a tad skeptically, as he had arrives less than a half hour before and seen only two rooms.  “How’s that?”

“It’s so clear what this house is.  It’s the place that you created, and have worked hard to protect – a haven to encircle all of the people you love.”

“Geez,” Madeline thought to herself.  “Just how much longer do I have to wait to fuck this guy?”  But what she said aloud was, “Huh.”

“There is love everywhere,” Dan said, still looking down at the plates.

“Maybe not quite yet,” she considered.  “But soon.  Very, very soon.”  The thought exhilarated her, thrilled her, yet also filled her with a quiet apprehension.  She said in a pitch that was decidedly tauter and higher than usual. “Would you like a house tour?  Want to see the rest of the Haven of Love?”

“Babysitting,” New chapter from novel “Pushing the River”

Sierra was in her usual spot on the couch in the sun room, except facing the other direction, her back to Madeline as she came in and leaned against the door frame.  Also as usual, Sierra was dressed head to toe in clothes that belonged to her big sister – right down to the borrowed socks — with the exception of the fleece Madeline had lent to her, and which Sierra wore day and night, inside and out.  She was on the phone, though it was difficult to tell at first, as she was saying absolutely nothing.  It was only the slight crook of her head which implied that her ubiquitous cell phone was buried somewhere under her hair, tucked against her ear – that, and the fact that she didn’t turn around when Madeline came partway into the room, didn’t jump at the barest possibility of a warm, live body to talk with.  She spent an astonishing amount of time “talking” on the phone, saying absolutely nothing.  Hours, sometimes.  Hours in which she would walk all around the house, open and close the fridge, go in and out of the bathroom, play with the dog, the silence broken by an occasional giggle, or a comment of notable brevity, such as “What?”  “No way,”  “Are you shitting me?” – four words was pretty much the max.

Madeline caught a glimpse of the impossibly neon blue gum in the corner of Sierra’s mouth, which promptly fell onto her boob when she eventually turned her head towards Madeline, rolling her eyes as if being on the phone was really an enormous ordeal.  She reached down without thought to grab the blue wad, pop it back into her mouth, and chew the heck out of it to soften it back up.  This happened a lot, too.

Jesus, Madeline thought.  Fifteen.  She really is fifteen.

What the hell was I doing when I was her age?  Madeline’s mind leapt to a photo of herself and her father that a visiting camera-crazy aunt had snapped when she was fifteen.  It was very early in the morning, and her father was about to give her a rare ride to school.  She had an armful of books, and though she looked sleepy, a supremely chipper smile.  Ha, she thought, every single time she ran across that picture.  It seemed that between her aunt and her mother, about a million copies had been made of that picture, because everyone thought both she and her father looked so good.  More to the point, it was probably the one and only photograph that included both of them, as it was most likely the one and only time she had stood that close to her father for a period that extended a number of years in both directions of that particular morning.  Plus, her other dirty little secret was: she wasn’t just sleepy; she had been stoned out of her mind the night before.

OK, but besides that smoking pot thing, Madeline pondered, what the hell else was I doing?

Well, babysitting.  She did a lot of babysitting in those days, largely to support her music habits of album-amassing and concert-going.  A flipbook of the various families she regularly babysat for ran through her mind.  The Roys.  The Kelloggs. Families she could no longer remember names of either them or their children, but whose homes – their furniture, wall art, record collections, the various Things they had positioned in places of honor because of status, or nostalgia, or duty – these remained locked in her memory as if it were yesterday.

When she thought of these families as a whole, they all seemed impossibly earnest, clean-cut, each and every one of the men a future Scout Leader, and the women, they would be battling one another for PTA president, a freshly baked batch of cookies/brownies/banana bread forever on the spotless kitchen counter.  And religious.  Each and every one of these families was devoutly religious.  Weird, she thought.  How in the world did that happen?

Once the kiddies were asleep in their beds, she would peruse the snack options, put on some tunes, and settle in for an evening of making some money to sit there and do homework.  She always expected that the parents would return home with flushed cheeks, giggling and leaning against one another in a blush of fun at having a Night! Out! and perhaps one too many cocktails.  But this never happened.  Never! The mommies and daddies would arrive home looking every bit as polished and coifed as when they had left, and even more surprising, seeming genuinely eager to talk with her.  How was school going?  Was she still studying piano?  What was she reading in her spare time?  Their interest amazed her in a way that made her feel inexplicably sad — all wide eyes and toothy smiles.

There was that one couple, though.  What the heck were their names?  Rick?  Was that it?

Kathy?  They had that one baby boy who was generally asleep by the time she arrived.  Even when he was still awake, the kid did absolutely nothing.  Just kind of hung out.  Then went to sleep.

One look at Kathy and Rick and you couldn’t help but picture them as that glorious high school couple – the Captain of the football team and the head cheerleader – You knew that Rick would have been captain based not on any real degree of skill, or even leadership ability, but because he oozed an easygoing, blond smoothness and a manner that gently projected, “Damn!  It is really good to be me!”   Kathy could be defined by a word Madeline hardly ever thought of, let alone used in a positive way: cute.  She had porcelain skin with a dusting of freckles across her nose, and red hair that grazed her shoulders in a perennially perfect flip.  Sometimes she wore her black-framed, cat’s-eye glasses, other times not.  She had married The Catch, and was devoting herself to the role of wife, mother, homemaker.  She would keep herself trim, keep a spotless, if modest home, try out new recipes from Ladies Home Journal on a regular basis, make a boxed cake mix every week, and always wear an apron so she’d look her best when she sat down for dinner with Rick.

She was also the only one who would arrive home from her date night with her husband with her hair out of place here and there, her smile a little goofy, fumbling with the money, all of which Madeline found immensely adorable.

Rick would always be the one to drive her the distance of fifteen or twenty houses from their home to her own, which struck her as quaint but ridiculous in what she viewed as the world’s safest and most preternaturally bland suburb in existence.  She disliked Rick for reasons she couldn’t put her finger on at first.  His perpetual too-deep tan, his mirrored aviator shades, his profound and unflappable belief that every guy he met would yearn to be his best friend and every woman would sigh internally in his presence, unable to shake the image of his blond hair brushing against their faces, his sun-kissed hands gripping their hips.

Madeline had grown used to the parents’ fascination with her; but Rick possessed a clear, confident expectation that she would, of course, be fascinated with him.  He fiddled with the radio dial and changed the station to something he thought she would love.  She glanced over at him.  He had turned his body part way to face her and let his knees fall open.  He might have looked friendly and relaxed and nothing more, but she knew better.

You fucking piece of shit, she thought to herself.

He was waiting.  Expecting that Madeline would be overcome with desire and would make a move.  And if she did not, he was contemplating making the first move himself.

You fucking piece of shit.  Madeline thought of Kathy at home, drowsily checking on the baby, removing her clothes, crawling under the covers in a boozy glow that told her that life was truly good.  Rick’s hair was just beginning to thin, his overly-tanned skin withering with the advancing years.  Shit, the guy didn’t have a clue how desperate he was, how much of a joke.  But he would break his wife’s heart nonetheless.  He was one step away from trying to fuck everything in sight, while Kathy continued to hum in the kitchen and bake him cakes.

Thinking about this, about all of this, filled her with an intense rage, a full forty years later.

She looked again at Sierra, right as Sierra’s gum dropped out her mouth yet again.

Shit, thought Madeline.  Every single day of my life has been a cake walk, a total fucking cake walk, compared to this kid.


all photos from Flickr

Yesterday’s Epiphany can be today’s…meh

this is Merle!

Yeah, this is something else that goes along with the territory of writing fiction – at least if one writes in the non-chronological, non-linear way in which I approach the craft.

Sometimes it happens that yesterday’s EPIPHANY is today’s…meh.

This used to happen quite regularly when I did much of my writing in various coffee houses around town.  When on a caffeine-fueled roll, I would crank out some stuff with a Very High Degree of Enthusiasm!!  I would sip my java and reread the day’s work, thinking “This stuff is GREAT!  I’ve done it.  I’ve said something.”   There is no more satisfied feeling than taking that last gulp of coffee, packing up your gear, and heading out the door feeling that you have lived your life well that day.

Alas.  It happens all too often that, once that happy Caffeine Achiever feeling has begun to wane, I read over those same words and find myself thinking, “Huh?!  This is what struck me as so (fill in the _________: poetic, profound, truthful, flowing, ingenious, inventive, just plain nifty!)

Sometimes an epiphany lands squarely in the middle, meaning, the idea seems like it may work really, really well; and then again, maybe not.  Meh.

I’m not sure about this one.  The “epiphany” concerned a change in the narrator, moving from third person to first person part way through the book – beginning with the narrator speaking as a third-person observer, and shifting to narrating in the first person, but as one of the other main characters.            

The set-up would look something like this:

“Mr…Merle…there is something else.”

“What’s that, Miss Shirley…er, Shirley?”

“When I said that you were getting it all wrong…I didn’t mean the facts…exactly.”

“What else could you mean?  You said that I was too far away down here.  Too much removed from the goings-on.”

“I did say that.  You’re right.  But I meant it in a different way.”

“Like what?  What other way is there?”

“I meant to say that the way you are telling the story is too far removed.  You’re telling it like you are far away, as if you are watching everything from a great distance, as if you have no particular feeling about the events.”

“That’s the way stories get told.  They just get…told.”

“Due respect, Mr…  Due respect, Merle, I think it would be a better story if you got inside of it.  Inside.”

“Come again?”

“Be her.  Tell the story as if you are her.”


I will have to live with this possibility for a bit.  Let it swirl around.  See what the characters, and their story, tell me is the best way to go.

“Pushing the River,” NEW EXCERPT (yeah, HOORAY!)

It was the third time that mice had taken up residence here in the house.  On top of all the humans and their cats and dogs and friends that crowded into this here house, them little brown field mice found their way in again, too.

That first dog was a natural-born mouser.  By the time My Lady and the Husband even figured out they had a mouse problem at all, the dog was hard at work.  Inside.  Outside.  Didn’t matter where he was, he would make a sudden-like snap of his head, and before you knowed it he’d be licking his lips, the infernal rodent already swallowed up whole without so much as a trace.

That dog had been a squirrel-chaser from way back, but you always kinda wondered if he had any real seriousness about catching one, or if he was in it for the pure fun of the chase.  Well,  the day came — after many years of chasing he up and caught one, and that settled that.  It was like the taste of blood had lent newfound meaning to his life, and from then on the big, gentle beast was  forever on the lookout to up and kill any creature in his path that was not either a human or another dog neither.

My Lady might have worried about him swallowing all kind of mice, bones and claws and tails and all, cept for that time when he swallered up an entire roasting chicken they had left up on the kitchen counter to cool off for their family picnic.  When they come in later there was not so much as a spot of grease or lick of skin or any sign a-tall that the bird had ever existed.  The Husband had even surrounded the cooked-up bird with a sort-of barricade of forks and glasses and other kitchen things, every one of which stood right in its original place – a hedge of utensils surrounding nothing.  Well, they called up the animal doctor, and he asked them to remind him how much the dog weighed.  When they told him, he chuckled to hisself and said, you don’t need to worry a bit, cause that big boy won’t have any trouble with the likes of an 8-pound roasting chicken.  The whole thing became one of those stories that families like to tell over and over at get-togethers; but anyhow my Lady knew that no little teeny mouse would cause a digestive disturbance to the noble dog, or even a whole passel of them.

They counted eighteen mice that the dog chomped down that one summer, and that was just the ones they was around to catch him at.

The second time them mice moved in, they was already on their second dog and the Husband was already the X.  But while the first dog had the Killer Instinct, the second dog was one of them kind that never met a single other creature that she didn’t want to befriend and love up, so when the new batch of mice migrated into the house, she’d go right on up to them and poke at them with her nose, and dance little dance-steps around them, and do any crazy thing she could think of to get them to play with her.

My Lady didn’t feel right about killing the same little creatures that the Boy and the Little One had as pets all them years, so she did her best to ignore the whole rodent situation for a good long time.  But once she and the Little One kept spotting them scuffling and skittering across the floors late at night, and all kinds of little holes were getting chewed in the bags lined up in the pantry, she decided she couldn’t ignore the dang things any longer.

She started out with the old-fashioned kind of mouse killer trap that’s been in existence as long as I have, the wooden things with the spring hinge where you put some kind of food that mice love to lure them in and then POW that hinge snaps down hard and kills ’em right fast.  Well, it took about 2 or 3 mornings of my Lady checking them traps, only to find the bait clean gone and the trap unsprung – kind of like the whole chicken incident with that first dog – when sure enough she done sprung the trap on her own fingers in the checking process, and even though I heared movie upon movie with all kinds of language I could never even dream of, I ain’t never heard nothing like what come out of her mouth, and next thing you know the whole dang package of traps she bought was tossed in the garbage.

“Asher’s Fault,” by Elizabeth Wheeler


Last Thursday night, I had the pleasure of hearing an exceptional first-time author read from her debut novel.  Elizabeth Wheeler has a true gift for natural dialogue and pacing; and she has managed to handle a sensitive and difficult time of life — mid-adolescence and sexual identity — with great sensitivity.

But enough of my words — please support this writer and check out “Asher’s Fault” yourself.

Again and Again (with apologies to Rilke)

I have remarked/confessed previously in this blog about my need to grapple (publicly!) with my own dark, tortured feelings regarding writing, when assailed, as I was at first, with so many other blogs possessing titles such as The Joy of the Word (and we’re not talking jesus here, people), The Ecstacy of Writing, etc., etc.  Many wrote to thank me for speaking about this, kindred souls who also experience writing as an agonizing, if ultimately rewarding, creative endeavor.   A good friend even gave me his copy of John McPhee’s article “Draft No. 4” from the April 29 issue of The New Yorker (which is largely wonderful, if exhaustively long, because it’s The New Yorker) in which McPhee says:

           ” If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it  and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer.”

So, I am not alone!

I felt it.  A community of linked creative spirits, all besieged and beleaguered  by the Demon Word, by the profoundly felt need to Get It Right.

Well, I felt it for a while.  At least until I started following fellow writers who were, and are, cranking out Steven King-like numbers of pages that get sent to me on a virtually daily basis, while I have heretofore been feeling pretty good about one completed page, or even one completed paragraph.


And, looking deeper into the text of my erstwhile soul brother John McPhee, I see that he was describing his experience with getting a first draft onto the page – which partly due to the enormity of the torture, he does as quickly as he possibly can.  Like all those damn, I mean prolific, bloggers and writers that I am now [stuck] following.

Then, it is time for me to re-learn a lesson that I have learned over and over again.  And that is – the way that I write is completely unique to me.  The process is mine, just as the end result is mine.  Perhaps it is because I started out my “serious” writing as a poet (an excruciatingly bad one, I must say once again) that I write everything –every first draft, every email, the article on early childhood development that I am writing today, everything – by going over every sentence, every word, again and again.  I read it aloud.  And then I read it aloud again.  I look up an astonishing number of words in a thesaurus – not to find a fancier word, but rather a simpler one.  In other words,  nearly everything that McPhee describes doing in subsequent drafts, I do in my first draft.    It takes a long, long time to write a page.   Also, and again perhaps because I started out as a poet, I value telling a story with an utter economy of words.  My second novel was narrated by a 15-year-old who is a living run-on sentence in search of a topic; yet she tells her overall story quite succinctly.

Yes, there are common, shared experiences among all creative people and their processes; and yet, we are also each unique, individual, one of a kind.  My advice would be this: listen to everyone you can who may have any gem, however small, about your writing or your art.  Then, find your own way.

4th of July, 2013

Summer days, and summer holidays in particular, bring about the most magical feeling – as if time is endless, and the warmth of the air, the stretch of the daylight, the celebratory relaxation will go on and on forever.

My first-ever officially-diagnosed back spasm has laid me low for six days now, causing me to cancel any 4th of July plans in favor of a day of rest, broken up only by a four-mile walk along my hometown’s lakefront.  Evanston, Illinois takes the 4th of July very seriously.  Neighborhood parks are overrun with children participating in a myriad of games, events and activities that have been organized by the city.  The granddaddy of all small-town parades runs for a two-mile stretch along Central Street, in what is a time-honored, quirky, charming (arguable), tediously long (inarguable) display of every single Tom, Dick and Harry organization that wants to march the route and wave to the delighted crowd.

The beaches are jammed; every lifeguard the city employs is called to duty all day.  And the gorgeous stretch of lakefront park that runs from very near my home in the southeast corner of the city all the way to Northwestern University nearly two miles to the north, is packed with picnickers, large extended families who have staked out their turf, settled in for a long day that will be capped with the exhilarating fireworks display around 9 or 9:30.

This July 4th was a glorious day, one of the very best I can remember in my 30 years in my house.  The sun peeked in and out, perhaps to the dismay of beachgoers, but to the thrill of parade-goers and picnickers who most often wilt, or even faint in large numbers, on a typical Evanston 4th.

According to the most recent figures available, the general population of Evanston, Illinois is 65% white, 18% African-American, and 17% all other groups (as self-defined).  Because Evanston attracts so many families, the demographics of the public school system have always been quite different: 2012 information states that the elementary school system is currently 42% white students, 26% African-American, 18% Hispanic, with the remaining 14% all other.

A visitor would never have gleaned this yesterday, had they been walking with me.

The magical Evanston beaches, where I took my children nearly every day, and where they later served as lifeguards and beach managers, require a season pass to be purchased for any person over the age of 1, or a daily fee of an astonishing $8.00!   Yesterday, the exuberant beachgoers were comprised almost entirely of small groups, at least 85% of which were white.  Children and parents waited in long lines to buy popsicles, hot dogs and treats, just as I did with my kids.  By contrast, the picnickers cramming the park space for a solid two miles were at least 85% Hispanic, and comprised almost entirely of large extended families laden with grills, chairs, and what looked to be an amazing array of lovingly prepared food.

The United States is, truly, the greatest country in the world in so many ways.  Or perhaps it is more correct to say, it is so many different countries, existing side by side.

We have so much more to do.

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