“Coffee Malfunction,” new from the novel “Pushing the River”

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Within seconds of Marie’s butt hitting the dining room chair, Dan said, “The coffee’s probably near ready. Anybody else?”

“Seriously?” Kate said. “We just sat down. Finally! We finally all sat down.”

“Be right back,” Dan said.

Sure enough, the cantankerous coffee pot chose that exact moment to erupt. Rivulets of grainy blackish brew ran in multiple directions across the kitchen countertops, into the crack between the counter and the stove, down the cabinets and across the floor.

“Shit,” said Dan. “Total explosion.”

“You’re fucking kidding me,” Madeline said, leaping to her feet. “I’m coming.”

“Mom, Please stay here. Please.” The barely-contained flood of tears soaked Kate’s voice.

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“No, she’s right,” Dan said. “I got this.” Though he continued to stand motionless, holding a dish towel and staring blankly at the outpouring before him.

“Dan, can you come back in here, too? Please can you come in here? Can we all just sit here, together, at the breakfast table for a few minutes?” Kate implored.

Dan did not respond, and Kate turned to her mother, “Can you ask him? Can you please get him to just come sit down?”

Without a second’s hesitation or a thought in her mind, Madeline turned in her chair and faced into the kitchen. “Dan. Please. I’ll clean it up later. Just leave it. Please come sit down.”

The house held its breath. Dan slowly put the towel on the kitchen counter. Slowly he walked the few steps into the dining room, pulled out a chair, and sat at the head of the table, folding his hands in his lap. No one moved.

Kate picked up her fork to resume her Christmas breakfast, and with that, Dan shoved himself back in his chair and spit in a low, tightly-coiled whisper: “Do you feel better now, Kate? Do you feel better now that you’ve ordered everyone around and gotten exactly what you wanted? Even though it’s fucking crazy? It’s fucking crazy that there’s coffee spilling all over the kitchen, but you got what you wanted.”

Kate exploded into tears, exploded out of her chair, exploded from the room at a gallop, her mother a hair’s breath of explosion behind her, reaching out her arms and calling her daughter’s name.

The house split in two. In one part, two women raced through the living room and tore up the stairway in a rumpus of noise and limbs and sobs and entreaties. In the other part, three people sat in motionless silence, their eyes locked to their laps.

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photos by Harry Callahan of his wife Eleanor

“My Turn to Talk,” new from the novel “Pushing the River”

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The future is a giant fucking black hole.

Everybody keeps asking me, all the fucking time they keep asking me: “what am I gonna do when the baby’s born? What am I gonna do when the baby’s born?” Fuck should I know what I’m gonna do. Well, I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do. Like this is fucking rocket science or something.

I’m gonna take care of a baby. That’s what I’m gonna do.

I hate fucking people sometimes, like all people, like I really mean it, I really do.

I’m gonna be a good fucking mother, too. I know I am. A great mother.

They’re gonna put that baby in my arms, and I’m gonna love him and love him and love him. I’m gonna kiss his little head, and play with his toes, and rock him, and cuddle him, and whisper in his little tiny ears. I’m gonna love him up real good. All the time I’m gonna love him up.

And he’s gonna love me. He’s gonna love me like there’s no tomorrow, all the time, forever. Because I’m his mommy. I’m his fucking mommy. He’ll love me. He’ll never leave me. Because he has to. Because I’m his mommy.

Fuck the future. I’m gonna have someone who loves me.

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art by Jean-Michel Basquiat

“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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Billie Calls Marie — new from the novel “Pushing the River”

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“I saw this shit storm coming a mile away, I fucking did.

You’ve always been out to ruin my life, always, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why, you ungrateful little fuck.

Savannah and I, we don’t need your ‘help,’ we don’t need it at all, not one bit of your fucking, condescending bullshit like you are so much better than me and you have everything all figured out and we can’t possibly get along for another second without you and without your help, and you are SO FULL OF SHIT it makes me sick.

Don’t move back here Marie. No one wants you here. Savannah doesn’t want you here. I don’t want you here. We are doing just FINE on our own here, we are doing great, and she is having a healthy pregnancy and I am making sure that she takes good care of herself and I am taking care of her, and we have a PLAN and we’re getting together a lot of things for the baby and NO ONE NEEDS YOUR FUCKING HELP like you are always so sure that we do, like we can’t get along without you and your meddling fucking bullshit.

Stay the fuck away from us, Marie.”

Just a few seconds after that, Billie left a second voice mail:

“Seriously, just leave us the fuck alone. Don’t call us. Don’t move back here.”

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And a third:

“You are so full of shit. You have ruined, completely ruined, my life.”

And next:

“We are doing GREAT. Savannah is doing GREAT. You lie about every single fucking thing, and you need to just LEAVE US THE FUCK ALONE. I was so happy before you ruined my life with your constant BULLSHIT and your lies, and everybody knows that when I knocked Savannah’s teeth out it was an accident, a total accident, but you won’t let anybody fucking forget about that, will you, you are determined to keep ruining my life and make me wonder what I ever did to deserve such a worthless, awful, mean daughter. A so-called daughter who keeps trying to knock me over and knock me down every time I get back on my feet and moving forward and making good things happen for myself, you’re right there, knocking me down. STAY OUT OF MY LIFE, MARIE.”

All was quiet for about twenty minutes, and then:

“STAY THE FUCK AWAY FROM ME.”

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photos by Diane Arbus

Becoming Billie

As I [try! to!] return to writing the novel “Pushing the River,”  the character that I find haunting me is Billie.  As regular readers may recall,  I knew there would be a character in the story who struggles with significant mental illness, and that her lifelong struggle was a large part of the landscape that produced two very different sisters who are pivotal in the book.  In the novel  overall, the character of Billie Rae is relatively minor and remains mostly apart from the action.  But her impact on the sisters — both past and present — is looming and ever-present.  I wanted the description of her illness to be minimal, but memorable.

I have previously posted excepts from Billie’s story; this is a continuation, meant to be somewhat of a jigsaw puzzle.

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Billie Rae would brush her hair for hours. “That feels so nice,” she said. “Please, just a few more minutes, Stevie, pretty please?” Steve weren’t never the one who had brushed her hair – it was always Carol. But who she’d gone fishing with, and who made her special grilled cheese sandwiches just the exact way she liked them, and who done her hair, had gotten all mixed together inside of her. They was all people that used to be there, and now they wasn’t.

Billie wasn’t scared no more to walk home from school all by herself. She and Steve talked the whole entire way. He laughed and laughed at her stories. “You’re still my baby sister, Billie Rae, but I swear that when your times comes, you are going to have yourself the pick of the litter, the cream of the crop. The boys are gonna be lining up, Billie girl, so they can laugh their fool heads off.”

The door to her mama’s bedroom was closed when Billie got home. Always. She knocked on the door, said, “Mama, I’m home? Did you have a good day, Mama?”

She no longer waited for a response.

It was completely silent on the other side of the bedroom door. Billie used to remove her shoes in the kitchen, and tiptoe to her mother’s bedroom. Without making a sound, she lowered herself onto the floor and rested an ear against the cool glossy paint of the door. She sat for a long time, straining to get even the faintest hint of stirring, an audible breath, any sign that there was a life on the other side.

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She made up stories after that. Her mother had been secretly taken away by gypsies and was playing a tambourine with bright yellow and orange streamers every evening around a roaring campfire while men played the fiddle and women told tall tales and babies ran amok. Her mother had run away with a traveling circus and proven to have a remarkable talent with the elephants, who understood that she loved them dearly and would do whatever she wanted for the reward of her gentle strokes and soothing words. Her mama had been sucked right out of the window like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and was traveling through a magical and wonderful land, but all she wanted to do was get back home.

Billie had a recurring dream. She was in a beautiful place, right next to a dazzling blue sea. She said to the owner of the restaurant: “I’m waiting for my family. They’ll be right here.”

“We’re very busy today,” he replied. “Very busy.”

“They’ll be right here.”

He seats her at a table. She gazes out at the endless blue and feels a sense of tremendous peace. She enters a dozy, dreamy state. When she emerges from the deep reverie, a woman is sitting at her table, kitty-cornered from her. Billie is unsure what to make of this. She thinks that perhaps the owner has allowed the woman to sit there for a bit because it is so crowded. She’s not sure whether to pretend the woman is not there at all, or whether she should say something. The woman looks up from the book she is reading, gives Billie a small smile.

“My family will be right here,” Billie says, with an edge of assertiveness in her voice.

The woman smiles her small smile again, and resumes her reading. Friends, or perhaps they’re family, come over to the table, with much chatter and buoyant good cheer. They pull out the chairs and sit at Billie’s table, everyone talking at once as they open their menus and engage in a lively discussion of what wonderful foods they will all order. The waitress comes to the table, and Billie’s earlier sense of peace shatters like a pane of glass, the shards floating inside of her body, tearing at her.

The others look at her when it is her turn to order. “But…my family…”

They laugh, and return to their conversation. Billie doesn’t know if they don’t believe her, or if they don’t care. The little shards of glass rip at her guts.

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Top painting by Otto Pilny

A Look Behind the Scenes: Writing “The Story’s Told”

I have struggled with how to write this chapter since the earliest moments of conceiving this novel overall.  I knew there would be a character in the story who struggles with significant mental illness, and that her lifelong struggle was a large part of the landscape that produced two very different sisters who are pivotal in the book.  In the novel “Pushing the River” overall, the character of Billie Rae is relatively minor and remains mostly apart from the action.  But her impact on the sisters — both past and present — is looming and ever-present.  I wanted the description of her illness to be minimal, but memorable.  I wanted to write one chapter, and one chapter only, that gave a glimpse and glimmer of her back story.

I have previously posted two excepts from this chapter; and it has taken me as long to complete this brief passage as it has to write much longer sections.  Here, then, is the first draft of the completed section.

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The story’s told that Billie Rae was the quiet one in the family, the youngest, and a good girl. She didn’t give her mama and pap any trouble whatsoever, while her older sister was raising hell with one boy after another, and her big brother was puffing cigarettes and chugging beers and playing rock and roll music in every dim lit, smoke choked, sticky floored, ear splitting feedback wailing, hole of a place that pretended to be some sort of a Big Deal in the way-too-far-away from the city sorts of joints that littered the flat Midwestern landscape like May fly carcasses around the middle of June.

Billie looked at them like any big-eyed, solemn youngster looks up to the sister that braided her hair and played schoolteacher and cleaned off her bloody knees and wiped her tears when their mama wasn’t around, and the big brother who’d pretend he didn’t know that she was tagging along behind him and act all mad when he caught her, and he’d put them wriggly worms on her fishing hook while she wrinkled up her nose, and would tease her and tease her that she was too scared to touch the fish except with one poked-out finger on its slimy scaly belly, and she would holler like she done been stabbed, and he would laugh and laugh but then give her a big squeeze.

So a course she looked up to them like they was the be all and end all. Why they pretty much raised her up, her pap mostly gone and keeping company elsewhere, her mama spending long days shut up in her room and shuffling around her own house like a ghost when she came out a’tall. Billie Rae was still too little to understand all the hollering and fist-pounding that happened now and again. Once in a while, she’d hear the clatter of something being thrown, or the terrible sound of a glass or plate breaking. She would pull the covers up around her ears and she would whisper into the darkness, “Angel of God, my Guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here, ever this night be at my side, to light and guard, to rule and guide. Amen.”

She didn’t understand why all of a sudden, after a whole bout of hollering and stomping feet and loud wailing cries, her pap was saying that her big sister had to move away, had to go live with some aunt up Wisconsin way that Billie Rae had never even heard tell of. Billie stood around with her blue eyes wider than ever while her sister threw her suitcase onto the bed and pitched articles of clothing into it like each and every single one of them had done her unspeakable harm. Her sister took a pause now and again to wipe a steady stream of tears from her own face and from Billie’s as well; then with a hug so hard she thought it would crush her bones and a general slamming of doors, her big sister was gone.

She waited til the next time her mama came out of her room, and Billie asked her when her big sister would be back. Her mama said, “Don’t you never mention her name to me again, Billie Rae. Do you understand me?”

Still, Billie came home from school every day and stood at the window so she could be sure she’d be the first one to catch a glimpse when her big sister came home one day. She knowed from school where Wisconsin was, and that it wasn’t too far away at all, being as it was the state right next door to her own. She felt like her sister was close. Sometimes she felt like her sister was right there inside of her, and she swore she could feel her small, gentle hands running through her hair or hear her breathing in the empty bed next to her own. She would just wait.

Course not a one of us knows how our lives mighta turned out entirely different cept for one thing that turns us on our head.

It hadn’t been all that many days of Billie looking out the window for her big sister, and nights of her whispering her prayers in the bedroom she had all to herself. Her big brother did not come home one night. He weren’t in Wisconsin, neither. Billie knew he would never be coming home, or anywhere else, ever again.

The story’s told that Billie Rae was never quite the same after her brother Steve drove off the road that night. She never saw the old car setting upside down with one wheel completely off and another turned on its side. She never saw Steve, neither, and didn’t have any way of knowing how smashed up he was, or if he maybe went peaceful without so much as a scratch on him. Still, the sound of the car tires squealing, and the crash of metal flying apart, and most of all, the picture of her big brother with streams of blood trickling all down his face haunted Billie’s dreams for the entire rest of her days. Sometimes when she weren’t even sleeping.

Billie Rae was twelve years old, and in the junior high school then. Her big sister was 18 years old, and a married woman. Once in a while she took the bus down from Wisconsin and spend the afternoon. She looked like someone who was trying to look all growed up, and was putting a mighty big effort into it. She took Billie to a movie, or out for ice cream. She would brush Billie’s hair and fix it in all kinds of fancy new styles, and she’d make her close her eyes while she led her over to the mirror, then say, “Open your eyes! Why, just look at you, Billie Rae! I swear you are getting prettier every single minute.”

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Billie felt like her sister was making her play a game she didn’t have no understanding of. She would get all excited when she knew Carol was coming, but always ended up feeling confused and sad and like she had done something wrong. “When are you gonna come home?” Billie would say. “At least for a little longer?” At least.”

Carol would give a long sigh, partly like she was sad, but partly like she was mad, too. “I’m sorry, kiddo. You’re on your own here now. You’re just gonna have to do the best you can.”

Carol would sigh again, and look towards their mama’s bedroom door. “Tell her I said good-bye, OK?” Then she would get all soft and touch Billie ever so tender on her chin, or stroke at her hair a few more times. “You’re my beautiful baby sister, Billie Rae.” She barely made a sound as she went out the front door and closed it behind her.

Billie went over to the mirror, trying to figure if she was beautiful like Carol said. She turned her head this way and that, checking the fancy hairdo Carol had pinned up from all different angles. “How lovely you look today, my dear,” she said to her reflection, and burst into giggles. She ran to the bathroom and dug through a pile of things that had not been touched for many years, pawing and turning til she reached in and grabbed up an old tube of coral-colored lipstick that belonged to her mama. Filled up with boldness that come from her sister’s visit, Billie plucked the top off and peered at the waxy crayon of color deep inside. She held the tube up so close to her face while she slowly swiveled its bottom that her eyes crossed. Billie balanced hips on the edge of the bathroom sink so she could lean way in, her toes dangling in the air, and drew a precise outline of her mouth. Patting her lips together just like the movie stars she seen on TV shows, she batted her eyes at the reflection that looked back at her, and jumped down from the sink to stand back and admire her handiwork.

Billie pretended to take a couple of puffs from an imaginary cigarette, and in a fake English accent, said “Really, darling, that new hair…”

She stopped in her tracks. Right there in the middle of that sentence. “This is wrong, she thought. All wrong. I am all wrong.”

She stood there stock still, and a whisper of a word came out of her mouth: “no.”

Billie Rae unrolled a fistful of toilet paper and went to feverish work on her painted lips, wiping and scrubbing at them over and over. Not even thinking or caring about the walloping she might get later on, she tore the lid off her mama’s cold cream, thrust her fingers into the jar and slapped a heap of the goo all around her mouth, scouring at it with a fresh wad of toilet tissue. Looking back into the mirror, she let out a faint wail at what she saw.

Fetching a spanking clean wash cloth out of the hallway closet, Billie Rae covered her entire face with a think daub of cold cream. She swiped at her face, rinsed the cloth in the cool running water, swiped again, until all trace of the cream was gone and her skin shone dewy and pink, little droplets of water beaded up and scattered across her forehead and cheeks.

Maybe something’s wrong with the mirror, she thought. Maybe that’s what’s going on here.

She fetched another clean cloth from the closet, and the window cleaner from under the kitchen sink. She cleaned that silver glass with the tender care of anointing a newborn baby, pausing after each polishing to look at herself once again. Time passed. Evening fell. And still Billie Rae polished the glass.

“Steve,” Billie said. “Something’s wrong. My face doesn’t look right. What should I do, Stevie?”
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Artwork, top to bottom:

photo courtesy of Huffington Post, M C Escher, Salvador Dali

“Sierra Arrives” (cont.), excerpt from “Pushing the River”

3320928533_b0f4f2a6fd_z            “Does he know that Uncle Steve has been dead for fifteen years?”

            “He knows.”

            “And this clown thinks it’s totally OK to send Sierra back.  With your mom. Who’s having long conversations with a dead guy.”

            “You know how this works.  She’s not a danger to herself or others.”

            “Really.  So how does he explain Sierra locking herself in the bathroom because she was so fucking scared?”

            “He’s not a bad guy, Madeline.  I’ve been talking to him for a really long time.  He’s been there with my mother for a really long time.  There’s no choice here.  He’s gotta do his job.  Once my mom calls the police and reports Sierra gone, she’s officially a runaway, and you are then harboring a runaway.  He tells me this is a Class A misdemeanor.  He tells me you could end up going to jail.  For a year.  So, you gotta take her home now or he sends the cops over to haul you off to jail.”

            “Fuck.”

            “Exactly.”

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            “So he is totally convinced that your mom is OK?  He is willing to put his ass on the line that a pregnant fifteen-year-old is gonna be safe with her?

            “Yep.  That’s pretty much it.”

            “OK, tell you what.  You get his name, and his badge number, and you tell his ass that it’s his decision, and it’s his ass.  Put me on speaker phone if you want, and I’ll tell him myself.”

            “Um, I’m pretty sure he can hear you already.  I got the other phone right here.”

            “Great.  Saves time.”

            “You gotta take her home.  Right now.”

            “Does she know all this?”

            “Yeah.”

            “Is she OK with this?  I mean…”

            “She knows there’s no choice.”

            “Well, I’m not taking her home.  I’ll tell you what — if I am ‘harboring a runaway’ and am very nearly a felon, I certainly should not be putting this kid in a car and driving her anywhere, right?  And what’s more, if Billie’s in such great shape and all fine and dandy and ready to be a mom and not scare the shit out of her daughter in the middle of the fucking night, she can figure out a way to get here and get her Sierra herself.  Let’s see her do that.  We’ll be waiting right here.”

           In a reversal of events from a half hour before, it is Madeline’s turn to tread lightly down the hallway towards the blackness of the room where Sierra lays.  She stands for a moment outside, but through the three-inch opening of the door, a little voice says from the nothingness, “It’s OK, MadMad; I’m awake.  I know…”

            “I’m sorry, Kiddo.  Are you OK?”

            “Yeah.”

            “Anything I can do?”

            “No.”

            “Nothing?”

           “It’ ll take them a while to get here.  I’m gonna try to sleep.”

            “OK.”

            “OK.”

            “Then we’ll make a plan.  You’re not leaving here unless you feel safe.”

            Madeline waits outside the door, but no answer comes.

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