PUSHING THE RIVER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PUSHING THE RIVER teaser quotes

PUSHING THE RIVER releases one week from today!  Here are some teaser quotes from the novel to whet your appetite.

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“I have lived in the company of ghosts. I have known this for a long time – that I rattled around among specters and spirits and wraiths.  But I also knew that they were, indeed, my company.”

“He shook her toe a few more times and then went over and sat down on his own side of the bed. It occurred to him that maybe if he got back under the covers and shut his eyes and then opened them up again, it might all be different.”

“When Jeff first left — fourteen years ago today –  I could read without glasses, even the smallest print on the train boxes.  When my hands reached up to dust those boxes, the craggy blue veins did not stand out starkly against my sallow hands.  The skin did not pucker into fascinating, horrifying patterns.”

“She had a nearly overwhelming desire to lie down in the grass right then, halfway along the trail, right there, in the middle of the sculpture garden, and resolve to stay there, not move, not continue, until something changed.”

“I was a Natural Woman.  I told my mother she had given me her last Toni home permanent, thank you very much, and gathered up my bras for a ritual burning.”

“There was something just a little goofy about him, the stoop of his shoulders, the enormity of his feet in the ultra-white gym shoes she later learned he had bought that day at Costco.  A mortal after all.”

“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, want to stay, want to hold her, want her.”

“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.”

“Even the wildly striped hair did nothing to dilute the impact of seeing a child – a very small, very young, very sad, and very scared child – standing there.  A child who happened to be seven months pregnant.”

 

“There Is No Formula,” new from the novel “Pushing the River”

This is the 3rd posting for this continued chapter.  The final paragraph of the previous post is repeated for continuity.

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“Really?” Madeline said. She did delight in this man who had never been around a baby, never held a baby in his entire 55-year-old life. She had watched him stand at a terrified, awkward distance when he came to the hospital after Dylan was born. She had watched him thaw, gradually at first. She had seen him become mesmerized. She had heard him say, more than once, that maybe, no definitely, if he had met her earlier in his life, the two of them would have would have made a family together. Fuck. What do you say to that? And here he was, offering to mix a bottle of infant formula for a baby whose 15-year-old mother was catching up on her sleep with some lost boy named Jose, because she was pissed at her baby daddy who had flirted with another girl thousands of miles away.

Dan left the room and returned a few brief seconds later. “There’s no formula left. None.”

He retrieved the empty container from the kitchen and held it out to her, shaking it around for emphasis.

Madeline sighed heavily.

“She needs to figure this out,” Dan said. “She insists she wants this baby, and she needs to figure this out.”

“She’s fifteen years old,” Madeline said. “She ain’t gonna figure out shit.”

“Well, as long as she’s here, she’s gonna try.” Dan turned on his heels and sprang up the stairs to the second floor. Madeline held her breath, picturing Dan clenching and unclenching his jaw in her head. The lightness of his knock on Savannah’s door surprised her, as did the gentle voice that matched it.

“Savannah?” Dan said. “You need to get up. We’re completely out of formula. You need to go get some.”

After a short pause, Savannah’s groggy voice replied, “OK. I’m up. OK”

Dan remained at her door until he heard a general stirring of activity, then said, “Try to hurry up. Dylan’s already hungry.”

Dan rejoined Madeline in the sun room, where Dylan had drifted into a light snooze on her shoulder. “Nicely done,” she said. “You handled that well.”

“I think we would have made really good parents,” Dan said.

“To a 15-year-old unwed mother? Great.”

“No. You know that’s not what I meant. You make all of this look so…appealing. Like no other choices or other kinds of lives make sense to even consider,” he said.

A highly disheveled Savannah appeared in the doorway, joined at the hip to a skinny wraith of a boy who brought to mind the word “wan” despite his Hispanic heritage.

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“I guess we’ll have to walk over to the Walgreen’s to get some,” Savannah said.

“OK. He’s fallen asleep. He’s fine for now,” Madeline said.

“I mean, Marie usually takes me to that place where I can get the formula for free, but there’s no way to get there cause she’s at work, right?” Savannah offered.

“Right,” said Dan, before Madeline could answer.

“So I guess we’ll walk over to the Walgreen’s.”

“OK.”

“So…I need to borrow the money for it,” Savannah said.

“You need to borrow the money?”

“Don’t worry; Marie will pay you back as soon as she gets home. It’s usually, like, $25 for a container. Can you believe it’s so expensive? God, I’m SO glad we get it free.”

“I’m not worried,” Madeline said. “Let me rephrase. I’m not worried about getting paid back by Marie.”

Dan reached into his pants pocket. “I’ve got a 20 right here. Do you have the rest, Savannah? Five bucks or so?”

“Um, no, well, I can count up my change,” Savannah said. “I might have it.”

“Never mind counting change. You can get the rest out of my wallet,” Madeline said.

“OK. Thanks,” Savannah said. “Hey MadMad, can I borrow your jacket? Again?” She giggled.

“So I guess you want us to watch Dylan while you two go off to the store,” Dan said.

“Oh. Right. No, we can take him.” Savannah looked over at the silent, sunken waif at her side.

“Except I think he barfed all over the carrier. I think I need to wash it.”

“No reason to wake a hungry baby to take him outside in a barf-covered carrier. If you guys hurry, I’ll have enough time to get to work,” Madeline said. “So hurry.”

With a general kerfuffle and Savannah making approximately ten times the number of movements as The Wraith, the front door closed behind them. Dylan moved his head and frowned slightly in his sleep.

“Talkative chap, isn’t he?” Dan said.

“Jose? Yeah. He’s grown about a foot and is otherwise unrecognizable from the kid I met a couple of years ago; but I don’t remember him saying a single word back then either. He just sort of followed Savannah from room to room. She ate it up at first, but then she got more and more annoyed and ending up treating him pretty much like shit – calling and texting other guys the whole time he was around – until he vanished. It was an interesting ‘relationship.’”

“Ah. Well, it makes sense then that they’ve hooked up again,” Dan said.

The two of them chuckled softly. “It’s kind of not funny,” Madeline said.

“It’s not funny at all,” Dan said. “That’s why we’re laughing.”

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photos by Diane Arbus

Short. Kinda Sweet. New from the novel “Pushing the River”

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The following is a continuation of the previously posted chapter excerpt. A paragraph is repeated for continuity.

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.

In the “real” world, the very much flesh-and-blood Dan came into the sun room and sat on the side not taken up by Dick’s memory ghost. He grasped Dylan’s other hand, so the three of them formed a bizarre human chain. Whether in response to the complexities encircling him, or strictly the result of his own inner rumblings, Dylan wrinkled his face and let out a parade of little fussy snorts. Madeline put him on her shoulder and nuzzled her face against his own. “He may be hungry,” she said. “I don’t have any idea when he had his last feeding.” She rolled her eyes. “I mean, some guy named Jose is upstairs in bed with Savannah.”

“WHAT?” Dan said.

“Yeah. He’s a friend from a couple of summers ago. I guess she ran into him again when she was hanging out in the park. With the baby.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding me. Does Marie know?”

“Yep.” Madeline said. “I texted her at work. She said she’d talk to her and take care of it. Meanwhile…I better make a bottle.”

“I’ll do it,” Dan said.

“Really?” Madeline said. She did delight in this man who had never been around a baby, never held a baby in his entire 55-year-old life. She had watched him stand at a terrified, awkward distance when he came to the hospital after Dylan was born. She had watched him thaw, gradually at first. She had seen him become mesmerized. She had heard him say, more than once, that maybe, no definitely, if he had met her earlier in his life, the two of them would have would have made a family together. Fuck. What do you say to that? And here he was, offering to mix a bottle of infant formula for a baby whose 15-year-old mother was catching up on her sleep with some lost boy named Jose, because she was pissed at her baby daddy who had flirted with another girl thousands of miles away.

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Art: Toulouse-Lautrec

“Elephant Lullabies,” new from the novel “Pushing the River”

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“That was when you taught me about sex, Marie, remember?”

That’s what emerged from Savannah’s mouth just as Madeline entered the room. Savannah laughed a hearty, open-mouthed laugh. Her great round belly bounced up and down, requiring her to arrange it. “We were just talking about that time Marie told me all about SEX. Don’t you remember, Marie?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. This is nonsense,” Marie countered.

“No. It’s true. We’d been waiting for Mom for so long, don’t you remember? It was, like, hours and hours,” Savannah said.

“Waiting for her where?” Madeline asked.

“At the casino,” Marie said.

“What do you mean?” Madeline asked.

“Well, wait, let’s get back to the story here,” Savannah said. “I can’t even believe you don’t remember this, Marie. We were sitting on the curb, cause we’d already played in the car and taken turns playing taxi driver, and then you went all through your purse trying to find all the little crayon stubs, and you let me draw pictures on all the little scraps of paper you picked off the floor of the car and from the glove box, and you made a story up about every picture, and still we were waiting. So we went outside and sat on the curb, and you had me drawing pictures using just my toes in the dirt, and you’d guess what they were. And you were being silly and making me laugh, guessing that the pictures were crazy things like a bunch of angels gathered around a brand new baby elelphant singing it lullabies so it could sleep through the roars of the angry lions. I mean, I drew something like a circle, and that’s what you’d guess.”

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“Angels singing to a baby elephant?” Madeline arched her brow.

“Whatever. Shut up.” Savannah said.

“We’d been waiting a really, really long time. I just remember being so sleepy. It was dark already. And then I said: ‘Marie, this girl in my school said her older sister is gonna have a baby. And my friend asked her sister where the baby came from, and her sister said that her husband stuck his wee-wee inside of her and went pee pee, and that’s where the baby came from. And I said, is that true, Marie? Is that where babies come from? Is that where I came from?’ And you said, I swear to God you said: ‘Well, that’s close enough.’” Savannah wrinkled up her nose and laughed loud.

“Nonsense,” Marie said. “Never happened.”

“Oh my God, you’re the worst,” Savannah said, picking up the sofa pillow and tossing it at her sister. Both of them burst into unfettered laughter.

“That’s what I thought for years, Marie. Years!”

“You were a little kid! What was I supposed to say?” Marie said.

“Like, how old?” Madeline asked.

“I don’t know.” Marie considered. “Probably 4 or so by then. This kind of went on for a long time.”

“This what went on for a long time?” Madeline asked.

“We’d all be out running errands, or getting food, or whatever, and my mother would just sort of…drive over to the casino and say that she’d be right back. And she’d leave us there. In the car.”

Marie’s tone was strangely untroubled, but her voice became softer. She shrugged one shoulder. “She was basically bringing me along to watch after Savannah. Savannah was pretty little when this started.”

“Little…like…?” Madeline asked.

“Oh, one and a half? At least one,” Marie said.

“So you were taking care of a baby inside of a car in the parking lot of a casino. By yourself,”

Madeline said.

“Uh-huh,” said Marie.

“It was fun!” Savannah said. “Marie made it really fun.”

“How long would she be gone? In the casino?” Madeline asked.

“Sometimes not very long. You know, an hour. Sometimes…pretty long. That time Savannah’s remembering is probably the longest. I think my mom drove us there right after lunch. It was dark when we left.”

Savannah laughed. “It’s all your fault, Marie,” she pointed to her enormous belly. “You ruined me with that story.”

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Art: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

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

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.

Runaway Train: new from “Pushing the River”

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Marie is poking at a few hundred cloves of garlic she is roasting in the oven when Madeline comes into the kitchen.

“Are you mad at me?” Madeline asks her.

“No,” Marie says, in a tone of voice which successfully imparts the following: “I’ve considered whether I should be angry at you; and whether I really am angry at you but am fooling myself into thinking that I’m not; and whether I have a lot of very complicated feelings but none of them seems to be anger. So – no.”

“Is your sister mad at me?”

Marie pokes at the garlic. “You know, Madeline, everyone has told Savannah her whole entire life that she can’t do stuff. That she’s not good enough.”

“I know.”

“She’s been made to feel like such a piece of shit. From day one. Bounced back and forth.”

“I know,” says Madeline, feeling like a piece of shit.

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“It felt like more-of-same to her. Like you’re just one more person who’s telling her that she’s a total fuck up. That this is yet another thing that she can’t do.”

Madeline considers for a moment just how much Marie is talking about her sister. “But she can’t do it right, Marie. Not because she’s a bad human being. Because she’s fifteen. Because no fifteen-year-old can do this.”

“She really really believes that she can.”

“I completely agree that she really really believes that she can. I agree that she really really wants to. With all her heart. She believes that this baby will land in her arms, and she will magically be able to give him every single thing that he may ever need in his whole entire life – that’s what I know she wishes. But she is fifteen fucking years old.”

“Well I for one am going to do everything I possibly can to help her.”

“Runaway train never going back/Wrong way on a one way track” – that’s what lurches through Madeline’s mind as Marie says those words. Great, she thinks; on top of everything else, fucking Soul Asylum stuck in my head.

“And I think we should all be completely committed to that,” Marie adds. “All of us. To help her as much as we can.”

“There isn’t enough help in the whole world, Marie, not enough to make this work.”

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Photos from the film “Stand by Me” (top and middle)

from the film “Lone Ranger” (bottom)

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