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

Happy mother with newborn baby

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

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

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

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

Madeline grabbed her phone and immediately texted Marie at work:

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

Marie: What?! OMG it must be Jose.

Madeline: Who the fuck is Jose?

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

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

Marie: Do you mind taking care of him?

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

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

Madeline: Caught him from 2000 miles away.

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

Madeline: Hanging out in a bed.

Marie: I’ll talk to her. I gotta go.

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

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

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

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“Herding Cats,” new from the novel “Pushing the River”

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The expression “herding cats” does not even begin to cover the travesty of attempting to gather six adults (well, five adults and a 15-year-old mother of a newborn) into one room for long enough to reach in and pull out painstakingly-chosen treasures from Madeline’s hand-knit Christmas stockings.

Pots of coffee were brewed and drained, favorite Christmas CD’s from long years past rang out on the stereo one after another – and still, no more than four people at a time managed to amass in the general vicinity of the tree, the stockings, the waiting slew of piled gifts.

The only person in unfettered good spirits was, as usual, baby Dylan. As a one-month-old newbie who had every reason to express general difficulty in his adjustment to the whole world outside of a warm, dark, wholly embracing womb, he rarely did. The bright lights, noise and general chaos that he had been born into seemed A-OK to him. Madeline regularly said to Savannah: “He’s not a real baby, you know.” Savannah of course had nothing to compare him to. She had no idea that sleepless nights were the norm, not in infant who nestled into his mother’s ample chest and snoozed the night away.

Kate planted herself in the living room, turned off the Mormon Tabernacle Choir mid carol, and opened her violin case. “John,” she shot over her shoulder, “let’s play until everyone’s here.”

“I was just—” John said.

“Let’s play.” Kate’s breathing was faster than usual.

John wandered back and forth in the room, as if trying to remember what her words meant.

“Oh, great!” Madeline said, rushing into the room and plopping down on the sofa. “Best idea ever. More impromptu carols!” She knit her brow and continued, “Hey, anybody seen Dan? What the heck is he doing?”

“What the fuck is anybody doing,” Kate said. “Seriously, what the fuck is everybody doing.”

Herding-Cats

“DAN,” Madeline called out. “DAN!”

A door on the second floor opened. “Yeah?” Dan said.

“Hey, can you come down here?” Madeline asked.

Footfalls on the staircase, Dan standing on the landing, uncommitted to the remaining six stairs and exhibiting slight annoyed bewilderment.

“Whatcha doing up there?” Madeline inquired.

Dan shrugged. “Well, come down and sit with me. Listen to the kids with me. Come on,” Madeline chirped.

Dan padded down the remaining steps and took his place beside Madeline. “Here? You want me here? Like this?”

“What’s up with you?” Madeline asked.

“Nothing. Here I am.”

“Oh my God,” said Kate. We actually have four people here. All we need is Marie and Savannah.”

“I’m pretty sure Marie’s in the basement. On the phone or texting someone. Savannah’s upstairs. Also on the phone.”

“Let me know the next time and place that my services are required,” Dan said, standing.

“No no no no!” Madeline said. “Stay here! I’m gonna see if I can rally the troops.”

“I’m around. Once the troops get rallied, let me know,” Dan countered.

“Hey! Come on! This is fun!” Madeline said.

“Do you know the New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast?” Dan asked.

“Yeah…” said Madeline.

“Cartoon title: Pollyanna in Hell. Cartoon caption: ‘No more down jackets forever!!!’ ”

Madeline made an excellent attempt to demonstrate the expression “shoot daggers” with a glance, but Dan pre-emptively did not allow for eye contact as he left the room.

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Cartoon excerpt: Roz Chast, originally published in The New Yorker

 

“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

“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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Three More Nights

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When my marriage of twenty-one years came to the death throes of its legal ending, I scrimped and saved for a new mattress. This morning, nearly fifteen years later, I lay in bed until the unheard-of time of 7:30. I will sleep on that mattress only three more nights. It is long past its useful life; a new one sits in a box downstairs. I will instruct the movers to leave the old one behind, to be hauled away. The one in the unopened box will be driven to my new home on Thursday, set up in my new bedroom, and made ready for me to lay down my head at the end of the day when I will move from my home of thirty-two years.

I took out a lease on my new apartment nearly a month ago. Each week I visit it, at least once. I walk through the rooms and plan my furniture arrangements. I take measurements here and there, but I never write them down and don’t remember them later. Often I simply stand in each of the rooms, one at a time, and drink in the quality of the sound. Filmmakers always record this: the sound quality in each room when no one is speaking and nothing is happening, because each room is completely unique.

Sometimes when I walk into my empty apartment, I hate it. What was I thinking? I ask myself. I want to fall on the floor and cry. I go through machinations in my head to determine if it’s too late to change my mind. Other times I walk in and I am nearly overwhelmed with the lovely, homey charm that told me this assortment of rooms could be a home, a real and true home, for me.

I lay on my old mattress this morning listening to a rain so gentle, I had to work to hear the fine drops land. I listened to the birds’ joyful songs, the ridiculously loud ones and the more restrained, for a very long time.

I walked through the door of this dearly-loved house with a new baby in my arms and the entire life of a family ahead of me. After thirty-two years, there are many times when I ask myself if my body will know how to breathe in a different place, if my eyes will cease to see, to make sense of things, when the views out my windows are entirely foreign and not the views have been a constant through the whole arc of a life lived.

In three nights, a new chapter begins.

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Soul-Killing, Radical Revision

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I’ll tell you what sucks.  What sucks is when an idea for a 3rd novel that gelled a couple of years ago around the idea of a highly unusual narrator — in the form of a crotchety, dying BOILER in an old house — suddenly strikes you as an idea that won’t work.  An idea that has gotten in the way of the story, rather than providing a lovely way to bear witness to the events, and relay them with a unique point of view.  THAT’s what sucks.

And,  what sucks even more is the realization that aforementioned novel is more than half completed.  Let’s say 2/3 to 3/4 completed.  With the wrong narrator.  And thus, now needs to be completely re-written.

I hate re-writing more than most.  One of the best moments of my life was when I read an interview with author Ethan Canin in which he said that he tried to do as little rewriting as he possibly could.  He poured everything into his first draft, and felt rewriting generally lost some of the narrative drive and force of the original.  I embraced his words like gospel.

Sigh.  Nonetheless, I have now revised about 12 of the original chapters.  I have at least 18 more to go.  My organizational skills are such that various files are stored in 2 different computers, in a wide array of files.  In other words, it could be way more than 18 additional chapters.

Some of the stuff needs to be tossed away entirely (ouch!!).  Other parts can, and will, be incorporated into the story fairly easily.  In the section below, I did exactly this, and I think it worked.  A snippet that was originally told by the boiler has been woven into an existing chapter.

Even when our souls are impaled, we must gather force and go on.  I guess.

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Savannah is lounging around on the couch, her belly getting so swelled up it no longer looks like it could possibly belong to the rest of her body. She’s wearing a raggedy old pair of sweatpants that she borrowed from Madeline, a T-shirt she borrowed from her sister, and a giant sweatshirt she took right off John’s pile of laundry while it was still sitting on top of the dryer. That girl dearly loves to wear everybody else’s clothes.

The television set is on, as it always is, but Savannah isn’t really looking at it. It seemed as if she mostly liked to push the buttons every so often, make the sound go up or down, or switch to a different channel she would also not watch, then go right back to pushing the buttons on her phone.

Savannah holds the phone to her ear and says, “Daddy? Hi. Hey, what do you think I should have for lunch?”

Oh my god, Madeline thinks. You have got to be fucking kidding me. Not this food thing again.

“Cereal. I had a big bowl of cereal for breakfast.”

“No. I only like creamy peanut butter, and right now all we got is the crunchy kind. I hate that stuff. Plus I only really like peanut butter with marshmallow fluff, and pretty sure we don’t have any of that either. What else?”

“No, I’ve had bagels every day cause Marie always brings them home. Plus that’s what you said yesterday. What else?”

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Madeline comes in with a big basket of laundry and sits at the far end of the sofa to fold it. Savannah puts her teeny feet in Madeline’s lap and goes on with her phone talk. The little-ness of Savannah’s feet, the childlike tone of her voice – Madeline is not sure exactly what it is – she finds herself sitting on that same couch, years earlier, watching her daughter. There was a period when Kate was four and five when she would watch the same movie over and over again, and then watch it some more after that. Her first great love was “Ghostbusters,” til everyone thought they would lose their grip if they heard that tune and heard those folks saying “who you gonna call” one more time. But just when Madeline thought she might end up a few bricks shy of a load as a permanent condition, Kate switched to “The Little Mermaid.”

Kate did not simply watch. She was totally immersed. She had a whole set of costumes and dress-up clothes and pretend furs and pink plastic shoes that she would line up all across the floor, and she would stop the show between every different scene so she could put on the proper costume. She sang every song and acted out the entire story out as well. By the time the Mermaid married the Prince, Kate was wearing a pink gown with gold stars all over it and a shiny silver crown on her head. She puckered up her lips and leaned her head way out to give her Prince a sweet pretend kiss. Madeline saw all of this as she sat on the couch folding laundry.

She thought this: there was a time when she watched those movies with Kate, and she saw them through Kate’s eyes – at first, they were brand new, and every single thing you’re seeing is a wonder and a miracle, then they’re familiar enough to feel like home, but still funny enough that you get surprised – every time –cause you keep seeing all kind of things you didn’t see before, to where you think the jig is up if you have to sit in the presence of those same words for another minute of your lifetime. Quite a bit like life, Madeline thinks.

When Savannah pushes the button that abruptly ends her call, she says, “That was my dad. I was asking him what I should have for lunch.”

“Your dad?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Your father?”

“Uh-huh.”

“You were asking your father what you should have for lunch.”

Savannah can see that it ain’t a question, so she don’t answer.

“Your father, as in, the guy who put you on an airplane the minute he found out you were pregnant? Who said that you were dead to him? That father?”

“Uh-huh. He wasn’t a very big help. MadMad, what do you think I should have for lunch?”

“Oh, no. No, no. I’m not playing that game again.”

This advertisement comes on the television just then. There’s all these people setting around a table, completely frozen in time. One of them is caught right in the middle of spilling a whole pitcher of water. The first drop is just about to hit. Another is hanging in mid-air, kicking up his heels, his hair standing straight up in all directions. He is at the highest point, held in the split second before he starts on down. Yet another is tipping his chair so far back you know he’s about to tumble over backwards; but he’s caught right at the tipping point, held right there in the balance. There’s one more person. The only one who can move. He gets to walk all around this whole frozen scene, check it from every angle, ponder on exactly what’s going to happen next. He can take all the time in the world to figure it.

Elvis Has Left the Building: NEW from “Pushing the River”

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“I don’t know how much more of this I can take
She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake”

That’s what she’s thinking about; those two lines from Elvis Costello are twirling around and around in her head. Savannah lay on the couch, her belly ridiculous now on her tiny body, her feet alone looking too small to hold even one person upright, let alone one plus. It’s no wonder she has to lie down all the time, Madeline thinks to herself. Between her goddamn gigantic boobs and her Ripley’s Believe It Or Not belly, and her teeny tiny itty bitty midget feet, no wonder she can’t stand up. AND her razor-cut, rainbow-striped hair and the wad of neon fucking blue gum that never fucking leaves her mouth…FUCK YOU, Madeline thinks. FUCK YOU. She’s not entirely sure exactly whom she is addressing in her head. Nobody. Everybody.

“Savannah,” Madeline says in a casual, even tone. “Have you thought about…what happens…after this baby is born.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, It just seems like all the focus here is on…getting ready for this kid to be born. Getting all the clothes. The equipment. The stuff.”

Yeaaahhhhh?”

“It’s like the birth is the big event. The end point.” Madeline pauses for a response. Savannah cracks her gum. “You know: that’s all she wrote, the die is cast; the train has left the station; the little bird has flown; the ship has sailed; the gun is fired; Elvis has left the building.”

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“MadMad, what are you talking about?”

“I mean, are you thinking about…are you aware, let’s say, that there is going to be an actual baby that you bring home from the hospital?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that there’s going to be a baby, a real baby, that you will have to take care of, every day, every night, every minute, all the time.”

“I try not to think about that,” Savannah said.

“For eighteen years. At least. Three years longer than you’ve been here on the planet so far.”

Savannah moves the neon blue wad from one side of her mouth to the other. “Geez, Maddie, I try not to think about that!”

“Yeah, I think that’s my point here. I know you’re not thinking about it.”

“GEEZ, Maddie! What do you want from me? You’re making me feel bad!”

An intense pain gathers force on one side of Madeline’s head. My head is gonna explode, she thinks to herself. It is going to detach from my body and fly 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.

“I just think,” Madeline says calmly, “that the person I see lying on the couch in front of me doesn’t seem like she is ready to have an actual baby. Not one bit ready.” Silence rains down into the room like a vapor.

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Middle photo: Dorothea Lange

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

Oh. Dear. Procrastination.

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Who was it who said: writing is what one does when one has thoroughly exhausted all possible ways to procrastinate.

A couple of weeks back I had what I thought may be a serious AHA moment. I had put aside the novel I’d been slogging away at for nearly a year for a whole lot of good reasons – I wasn’t sure I had the desire/energy/wherewithal to complete a story that possessed me deeply for a time, then, well, didn’t any longer. I was no longer sure if a good story was even there, or if I cared enough to have those characters continue to possess me.

Putting it aside was the right thing to do.

shut-up

Meantime, I wanted to keep writing something, and didn’t have a fleshed-out idea for a longer, novel-length work. As you have read in these blog posts, I turned my attention to whatever was in front of me – thoughts about the opaque creature who happened to be my mother, and my reluctant return to the world of health clubs after a blessed 15-year absence.

The AHA was thus this: the gym stuff was fun, and funny. That was precisely the idea, and nothing more. The mommy stuff? Well, it dawned on me that those vignettes might actually be a part of the original novel. Perhaps I hadn’t put it aside after all. Perhaps I had (unknowingly!) meandered down a side road that turned out to be connected to the main artery.

Perhaps. If I can figure out how the heck to do it.

Or even where to start.

It’s currently 5:38 pm. I set aside the entire afternoon, save for a half hour dog walk, to find an inroad for the task at hand. ANY inroad, just a start.

Here’s what I’ve done so far:

  • played several games of Scrabble against the computer (my winning average is 51.8%)
  • texted pictures of my new haircut to several friends
  • browsed the websites of 3 different furniture stores for new living room chairs. The ones I have were bought on Craigslist for the sole purpose of “staging” my house when I thought I was going to sell it. Eight years ago. Still here in the same house. Still have those same chairs.
  • thought about every conversation I’ve overheard during the past couple of weeks to see if there was any good material I could just steal outright.
  • looked at my vacation pictures a few more times.
  • vaccummed, for godssake.
  • trimmed my eyebrows.

Oh good! My friend Rita just texted me that she’s on her way to pick me up for dinner!

Tomorrow is, after all, another day.

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