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.

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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

“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

“Windows,” in memory of August 26, 2014, and a new except from “Pushing the River”

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You have no idea, none at all, which of the most simple, everyday, completely unremarkable moments might be one that gets emblazoned in your mind for the rest of time. A snapshot of an instant, a place in your life that remains in exceptional, vivid detail – no blurring around the edges of a picture that never fades.

The day is sultry hot, a dazzling sun in the July sky. Madeline stands at the edge of an empty room, the one they have decided will be John’s bedroom. She puts the 6-week-old baby on the built-in desk; she places a fan on one side and adjusts it so it moves from side to side, blowing on John, then turning to blow on her. John reclines in the seat that they take everywhere, the one that bounces with his slightest movement.

Two of the windows are open. They are old and have the original latches on them, covered by a hundred years’ worth of coats of paint. Madeline and Dick immediately took down the cheap, yellowed window shades that had been crumbling on all six of the room’s windows. They had laughed themselves sick when they took up the area rug, surprised that it had been left behind by the previous owners, only to discover the baffling reason – the owners had refinished the hardwood floor around the edges of the room, but not underneath the rug! In the absence of the shades, the amount of sun and light coming in the early afternoon takes her breath away. Since her childhood, she has not spent time in a home, on a second floor, with the tops of trees and the sky and the difference in light.

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She stands at the edge of the room, looking out the windows. The fan is nearly silent as it turns from side to side. John moves his tiny bare foot and bounces now and then.

The tiny toes on John’s foot. The height of summer’s lush leaves on the trees.  The smell of fresh paint. She has no idea how clear the picture of all this will be, will remain, for the rest of her life.

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paintings by Andrew Wyeth

A Painting of Memory

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I lived in the company of ghosts. I know now that they were ghosts. But I also know that they were indeed company.

The house where the vapors lurked has 9 main rooms, not counting baths and laundry and storage and closets. Of those nine rooms, I inhabited five. I used only one of the three baths, one of the 6 closets, none of the storage areas.

A small room off the main part of the basement had clearly been designed for cold storage when the house was built in 1914. The wooden door at its entrance was at least four inches thick, the door of a vault. An ancient Frigidaire ice box still sits inside, its bottom compartment open and yawning, appearing expectant for the ice man to make his daily rounds, lugging the enormous block of ice that would keep the perishable foods cold and fresh for the next 24 hours.

The storage room has built-in shelves that run along two sides. In one corner of the shelves, the Lionel trains from my childhood lay in their original boxes. People have told me that the old boxes are often as valuable, or even more valuable, then the Lionel trains themselves. This matters not at all, as far as I’m concerned. Their value lay in the fact that playing with the trains, as they wound around our Christmas tree each year of my childhood, was the only time my father ever got down on the floor, on his hands and knees, and smiled the whole time.

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On the other side of the shelves, the HO trains from my ex-husband’s childhood lay in boxes that had been neatly labeled, and packed, and shipped to us by his mother. Of his three siblings, we had been designated The Keepers of the Trains. I asked him if he wanted the trains when our marriage ended. I asked him several times. He always said yes; but he never came and got them. Eventually he moved far away, with the trains still in their neatly-packed boxes, shipped to us at great expense from his parents’ house in West Virginia.

So many things were just like this – the shards and shreds of a life gone by. Like all people who marry, we came from two separate families, and we joined together to make our own new family. I became the Keeper of the Trains, a role I chose freely, without burden or regret – because I understood that there may come a time when someone would want those trains.

I lived among closets filled with the history of others, because any of the things within them might be needed at any time. Or perhaps the rooms themselves might be needed, as they have been many, many times as my children – and several of their roommates, and friends, and significant others, and spouses – needed a place to live, to call home.

They will not need this again from me.

It is more likely, in fact, that the time could come when I am moving towards my twilight, that I might need sanctuary from them.

I rattled around a great deal of space, in case I might be needed.

In my new home, I have three closets which are not even full. Both of the train have been given to my children, and hundreds of the other things we brought from our old families and collected with our new one.

I lived in the company of ghosts. I know now that they were ghosts. But I also know that they were indeed company.

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Photographs by Richard Nickel