Oh. Dear. Procrastination.

tyler

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.

calvin-writing

I Lied. There Is One More “Stories of My Mother”

mother-and-daughter

When Heidi went into heat the next time, my parents arranged to have her spend a number of days with the breeders where we got her. They had selected a mate for her. We all drove out to drop her off. The house lay at the fringes of land that were well past the suburbs, but not quite rural. There seemed to be dogs everywhere, some in large cages set around the enormous yard, and others who roamed the house freely. I wondered if the same dogs always got to live inside, or if the breeders rotated them inside and out, following some schedule. Their immense pride in their dogs was evident. Both the man and the woman went on at length, telling me each of the dog’s names and several of their predominant character traits. I got the feeling that I was actually supposed to remember all this, because of their joy and the weight they gave to every detail they imparted.

It was a confusing mess to me, despite the good cheer. I wanted to know if Heidi would have to be outside in one of the cages, and I was told that she would, because she and her new male friend would need privacy and time to get to know one another. I could not understand the convivial good spirits everybody seemed to share. We were abandoning Heidi with strangers who were going to make her live outside all the time.

The body of a female dog makes a complete puppy from the original fertilized cell in about 63 days. The average size of a litter is 5-6 puppies, although the variation is enormous. It’s rare to have just one puppy in a litter, but it does happen. A couple of months after we fetched Heidi from her exile, my parents once again got the wooden pen ready for her in the basement. The same old blue bedspread and dingy pink blanket that her first litter had been born onto lay on the floor. Heidi occasionally scratched at the blankets, rearranged them with her nose and paws, and circled around and around as she waited.

One afternoon, Heidi squatted down in a corner of the pen and stayed in the same position, motionless, and staring straight ahead. She looked like she was trying very hard to poop. I wanted to ask my mother if this was true, but she had already told me that I needed to stay completely quiet if I was going to watch. Heidi let out a long, low moan. She inched her rear end closer to the floor, so slowly, and out came a translucent thick balloon with a puppy inside of it.

mary-cassatt-mother-combing-her-child-s-hair

There was only one puppy, which was an enormous surprise. My parents decided that we should keep her, and that she should be named “Elf,” the German word for eleven. She was to be the 11th dog that my family had. They counted the dog that my father’s nurse had gotten for us unannounced. We visited him where he was chained at the far end of our back yard until my mother couldn’t stand it for another minute. I’m not really sure what happened to Toby. They also counted the black puppies that had not been viable.

I don’t think my parents realized that Heidi had been a relatively compliant, trainable dog until Elf. Looking back, I think Elf was most likely just dumb as a box of rocks. Even in photographs, she has a wild, glassy look in her eye – an animal with unbridled enthusiasm, absolutely no comprehension, the brute strength of an ox, the stubbornness of a mule, and a bad bad case of ADD.

I thought having two dogs was great fun.

My grandmother (the good, good one) was visiting us, and my mother had planned a big dinner. An eight pound beef roast sat on our kitchen counter, thawing out for the upcoming feast. My grandmother heard a commotion, and walked in to find Elf with the giant slab of meat clenched firmly in her jaws. My grandmother shouted “NO NO NO,” and reached out with both hands to rescue the meat. Elf snapped at her. My grandmother called out for my mother, who came running into the kitchen and immedaitely understood the situation. My mother spoke firmly to the dog and reached for the roast. Elf snapped at her as well.

I didn’t see any of this. I came in at the part where my mother told me that my grandmother was going to be in charge for a little while, and that she would be back soon. She put Elf on a leash and left. When she returned, Elf was not with her.

The only thing that was ever said about it was this: “I will not have a dog that snaps at its owner.”

We sat around the dinner table that night as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, though my father seemed unusually quiet.

I understood that we were not supposed to talk about it, but I was sick with sadness and confusion. I remembered the time when Elf was brand new, her eyes still closed tight, her body squat and furrowed with newborn puppy wrinkles. I was sitting inside the pen holding Elf on my lap, and somehow she slipped off. I picked her up, horrified at my clumsiness, and saw a tiny bubble of blood at the side of her nose.

After dinner that night, after my mother had finished the dishes and turned off the kitchen light, I said, “Mommy, do you think it’s all my fault? Do you think Elf was such a bad dog because of the time when I dropped her when she was a tiny puppy?”

“Maybe,” my mother said. “Maybe.”

cassat

Artwork: Paul Gauguin, Mary Cassatt, Mary Cassatt

Tales from the Gym #4, The Speedo, part 3

swimtheysaid

If you had told me, ever, that there would come a day when I sat in the privacy of my own home and watched instructional videos on YouTube where former Olympic coaches discussed the proper technique for the freestyle swimming kick, I would have been sorely tempted to administer a mental status exam right on the spot. You know, where a caring and concerned professional asks certain basic questions to determine whether you have lost your orientation as to person, time, and place – which is a fancy clinical way of saying that there are some very big holes in the screen door, the lights are on but nobody’s home, bats have taken over the belfry, the deck is no longer full, and you remain permanently with the fairies. Can you answer such simple questions as: what is your full name; what is the day of the week today; who is the current president of the United States of America. Of course, it’s most likely that there are members of my immediate family who could not answer at least one of those questions. Let’s say, perhaps, a family member who I gave birth to. Honestly, it’s highly likely that this person would miss 2 out of 3 of those questions; and the third could lead to a lengthy philosophical discussion about identity, power dynamics, and the assumptions we bring to bear on our understanding of such concepts as “life” and “self” in the first place. She’s a graduate student.

student

ANYway, I am getting ahead of myself. When we left off, my brand new Speedo was still constricting the blood flow around my knees.

Once I have had my trip down memory lane regarding the gym locker room, it then occurs to me that in order to cadge this wonderful, zero-gravity swimming experience, I will have to actually wear a swimsuit. In public. With the very real possibility – no, certainty – that I will run into the people that I see in my private practice of therapy. While wearing a Speedo. Don’t get me wrong. The people who come to see me possess the motivation, and the courage, and the sheer guts, to examine their lives and themselves in the service of having it be better. They are my heroes. But mostly when we are all fully clothed.

Let me just mention that I am doing battle with my little black Speedo right after I have come from a Gym Workout. I have had all kinds of helpful digital readouts telling me that I have successfully maintained an average heart rate of 138 beats per minute for 40 minutes. Lights flashed at me regularly, alerting me to the digital opinion that I was overdoing it, and was approaching the heading-for-the-light zone. Still, by the time I manage to wrestle, wrench, twist and tug the Speedo, and install the material so that it is mostly covering those body parts that are supposed to be covered – well, I am lying on my bed, spread-eagle, drenched with sweat, in a state of exhaustion that 40 minutes on a treadmill could never hope to duplicate.

Once rested, I am so damn proud of myself for having gotten this swimsuit on that I immediately take some selfies. Which exactly two people will ever see. My daughter, a longtime swimmer who knows the drill, and my boyfriend, who has seen it all before. I’m so lit up with my accomplishment, and so not-ready to even consider what will be involved with getting the Speedo off again, that I decide I will just hang out in my house and do some pretend swimming, going from room to room demonstrating what I have learned on those helpful YouTube videos.

ferrell120326_1_560

Stories of My Mother

While I continue to mull the future of “Pushing the River” – whether I will put the novel aside, discard it, work on a new, different project alongside it, or attempt to power through a finished first draft — it strikes me as a worthy idea to write something in the meantime. What has been on my mind quite a lot lately is: my mother. Undoubtedly this is because my own two children lost their father in a horrifying bike accident this past August; and it has created rippling echoes of my own first parental loss, when my mother did not wake up one morning in July, nearly forty years ago. She was 56 years old, and I was 20.

Here, then, is the first “Stories of my Mother.”

OJohnson

My mother hailed from a long line of rail-thin, nasal-voiced, energetic women who were capable and prepared at the drop of a hat to whisk into the kitchen and whip up a corn pudding or a batch of date bars well into their 80’s and 90’s.

My mother’s own mother came from a family of five children – four sisters and one brother – Edna, Lula, Ralph, Nell and Honey. Ralph was apparently a gentle and quiet soul who faded away and died quite young, leaving the four sisters to march into old age and beyond in their own brisk company.

Edna was the eldest, the smallest, the most serious, and arguably the most capable of the batch. The death of her husband in the early years of the 20th century did not deter her from providing a loving home for their only son, while dipping her hand deep into the well of local politics and remaining involved in any number of civic organizations that endeavored to protect the excellent quality of life she found in Grove City, Pennsylvania. All the sisters had snow white hair from an early age, yet never seemed to change much after that. It could scarcely be believed when the day arrived, in her early 90’s, when Edna registered mild annoyance at her son when he asked her how to spell a distant cousin’s name – Becky – and she replied “B-E- eck – eck – Y.”

It was when my mother gardened that she most strongly exhibited her damn-the-torpedoes heritage.

I was born in the 1950’s to a physician father and a homemaker mother who had earned a PhD in Biochemistry. She worked as a chemist and physicist during World War II, helped write the first full assay of Vitamin C, then elected to stay home with her babies and never looked back. She committed to being a wife, mother, PTA member, churchgoer, bridge player, etc., with the square-jawed determination that I can only assume a woman would need in abundance to earn a PhD in a science in the late 1940’s.

Just as Donna Reed, June Cleaver, and their ilk would have you believe, women of this era lived their lives in dresses and skirts. In shirt-waist A-lines, or slim pencils, they cooked, cleaned, chauffeured, reprimanded, volunteered, and – if they were especially efficient and read the right ladies’ magazines – greeted their hard-working husbands at the door with a cheerful smile, a well-mixed cocktail, and the aroma of Big Meat wafting through the household.

suburbs-gardening-mowers-housework

Women wore trousers only if the situation deemed this indignity inescapable. If it was blazing hot, it was acceptable to wear “pedal pushers,” a trouser also sometimes called “clam diggers,” but relegated mostly to Californians, bicycle riders, and teenagers dying to adopt new and shocking trends. Once in a great while the temperature and humidity would soar well beyond the pedal pushers zone, and my mother would unearth her shorts for an afternoon of gardening.

pedalpushers

Despite the fact that skirts still hovered just below the knee back then, and pedal pushers hit at nearly the same latitude, shorts of the time were alarmingly, well, short. Though it happened two or three times each summer, I never felt prepared for the sight of my mother dressed head to toe in clothes that never saw the light of day otherwise – white Keds sneakers, thin nylon ankle socks folded down in precise cuffs, extraordinarily short shorts, and sleeveless button down blouses with impossible color combinations of checks and plaids.

I may as well come out and say it: the sight of my mother’s mile-long, stick-thin, never-seen-a-drop-of-sun, otherwise skirt-covered legs horrified me. I was humiliated and embarrassed and saddened well before the age that all daughters are horrified and embarrassed by their mothers. I immediately went about the business of planning an afternoon inside the house, safely behind closed black-out drapes.

shorts

My mother gathered up her armament of tools with the precision of a scientist who had tested munitions during World War II. She inserted her hands into her cracked, worn leather garden gloves with the care and confidence of a veteran surgeon. She approached an afternoon of gardening as her many generations of Naval officer family members undoubtedly approached their duty to protect their country. And though I could not bear to look at my mother’s frighteningly pale, spindly legs, I understood completely that when my mother returned to the house in the late afternoon – without a hair out of place or a drop of sweat on her brow – not a weed, nor a withered stalk, nor an unsightly rock would remain in the extensive garden borders. Not a one.

I Am Just As Surprised As You Are

baby

Those of you loyal and intrepid souls who have followed my blog posts of “Pushing the River” – my third novel-in-progress — well, undoubtedly you have noticed the rather vast silence of the past couple months.

It was nearly two years ago when I was enjoying a glass of wine with my friend Mary, regaling her with the latest tales of my extended family and trying to make some sense of it all. The number of people residing in my home kept growing, and with it an increasing quiet chaos and sense of foreboding, inescapable doom. Between sips (or perhaps gulps, by that point) of wine, I told Mary that I was seriously considering beginning a third novel sparked by the events taking place in my house. Without missing a beat she said, “Ha! And it should be told from the point of view of the house itself!”

odence-surprise-100276339-orig

Viola. Inspiration. As it usually occurs – as a completely unexpected bolt from the blue in the form of an idea I could steal outright from someone else and make my own.

Life has thrown some pretty good punches since I began work on “Pushing the River” – just as life is wont to do. I have a decent one hundred or so pages, much of which I am reasonably pleased to re-read and know the words are mine. But the strangest thing has happened. I seem to have lost interest. In all of it! Even stranger – my friend and fellow writer Rita apparently saw this coming, and told me this recently over a shared glass of wine.* (*Obviously, there is a critical causation at work here; I must heed it and continue to drink wine regularly with good friends.) Rita (correctly) had the belief that this book, as I originally explained its conception to her, would need to be written quickly, almost breathlessly, to pour out a first draft while the fire of the original idea was hot within me. In some sort of shaman-like wisdom, Rita foresaw that if I couldn’t churn it out fast, the combination of me and the idea would lose momentum.

Well, here I am, just as surprised as you are.

asian

A Look Behind the Scenes: Writing “War, and Peace”

To write is to encounter continual surprise.

Even those of us who plot scrupulously, maintain note cards with excruciating details of our principal characters’ habits, gestures, obsessions, or plan a careful arc of increasing dramatic tension, climax, denouement – even we (ok, they) get surprised.

The idea for this chapter struck me — in one of those rare and delightful moments – as a bolt from the blue. It came from nowhere. When I was in the shower. An idea that had never occurred to me before blazed through my mind, and I understood immediately how well it fit into the novel-in-progress, how economically it conveyed an ever-increasing complexity of feelings and tensions inside the main character.

Originally, I had the idea that this chapter would be considerably longer than it currently is. I conceived of it going into lots more detail about the sex itself, and what went on in the character’s mind before/during/after that sex. The following version was written as a sort of schematic, almost like an outline that I intended to keep filling in. But, surprise! The schematic turned out to be everything that was needed. I think.

goya104

By the second week of December, my Lady felt as if she had fast-forwarded through a twenty-year marriage in just slightly more than three months.

Dan continued to spend long, lazy days in the kitchen, carrying on animated conversations with himself while he fussed over his bean concoctions. This charmed her immensely in September; by mid-December the noisy stream of words made her seriously question his sanity as well as provoking the hairs on the back of her neck to stand at full attention.
The ticket had been purchased – the ticket for the airplane that would whisk him away to tropical paradise for all of the brutal winter that lay ahead. January 4th. He would be gone, poof. Madeline teetered precariously on the brink of wondering how she could possibly tolerate three more weeks of his off-key humming, his utter failure to get her jokes, his flossing ritual. When he shuffled off to the bathroom each night to brush and floss, knowing the absurd amount of time that he would be gone set her own teeth on edge to such a degree she felt certain her back molars would shatter into bits.

In the evenings, the two of them would sit together on the sofa. Sierra and the baby dozed together in the Boy’s old bed upstairs. Marie worked one of her two jobs, or ran hither and yon trying her best to manage her own and several others’ lives. Dan invariably began his kneading of Madeline’s thigh, or his massaging of each individual finger – a perpetual motion machine of continual buzzy movement. The sadistic mosquito who senses when you are just about to drift off, and whispers in your ear. “For crying out loud,” Madeline thought to herself. “No wonder this guy meditates. This is a man who hasn’t known one moment of stillness in his entire life.”

She set her jaw against his very existence, calculating how she would bear the number of minutes until she could suggest that they call it a day, go upstairs for the night. At least the flossing ritual would offer her peace. And then, the solace of a lonely sleep, with Dan’s inhumanly perfect profile on the pillow beside her.

Madeline sighed. She rested her hand on Dan’s thigh for a second – a friendly gesture – and told him she was heading upstairs. “Be right up,” Dan said, without turning his head from the TV. “I want to catch a bit more of this, if you don’t mind.”

Madeline was out of the room when she said, over her shoulder, “not a bit.”

not_detected_230535

When Dan entered the bedroom, she was idly leafing through a magazine. In a different mood, she would have endorsed this particular journalistic effort as a “guilty pleasure,” a concept and a reality which she wholeheartedly supported. Tonight, leaning against the tower of pillows on her bed, she despised its banality, its endlessly recycled topics meant to appeal to the dark recesses of shame and anxiety amalgamated into the creature known as the American Woman. Which meant, of course, that she hated herself for reading it. For falling prey to its sunny, adjective-laden, exclamation-point-heavy!!!, bold and stylized font loaded B U L L S H I T about how to eat, dress, exercise, cut, coif, bleach, dye, tweeze, think, and talk as one’s best possible self, including, needless to say, fucking like a goddess.

“Are you in for the night?” Dan asked her.

“Yup.” She pretended intense concentration on her hated rag.

Dan switched off the overhead light, and began to undress. He undid his pants, which were baggy enough that they dropped immediately to the floor. Madeline unconsciously looked up at the sound of their thunk against the wood. She was confronted with the silhouette of his body, naked now from the waist down. Somehow the fact that Dan did not wear underwear – ever – still gave her a thrill, like an exquisite finger had touched a spot deep inside her belly. “God fucking damn it,” she thought to herself.

Dan crossed his arms, grabbed the sides of his shirt and pulled it over his head, rocking his hips first forward – just slightly — and back again along with the movement of the shirt as it climbed his abdomen, his chest, and down his arms to the reaches of his fingertips. He gathered his clothes from the floor, and stood in the dim light of the room with such an utter lack of self consciousness or guile that the ridiculous word “swoon” actually flashed across Madeline’s mind.

As if pulled by some string attached to that inner finger, Madeline’s foot inched up towards her other knee and fell to the side, leaving her legs open, wide, facing toward Dan.

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

It was years before. Her still-husband Dick had come – had made an appointment to come — to the house while the children were at school in order to gather some of his things. She had not known exactly what to do with herself, and had gone into the bedroom to escape, to stay out of the way of this stranger she had married to for more than 20 years.
He came into the bedroom. He asked some question or other.

She had no idea what it was. The slight stoop of his shoulders she had not noticed before. The fact that he wore his glasses all the time these days. The awkward boyish uncertainty that made him speak just a bit too loud. The words were out of her mouth without her own knowledge, it seemed.

“Dick. Let’s make love.” And when thought re-entered her head, she added, “Please.”

Her leg had moved up, her knees had fallen open, into that exact position as the words escaped her mouth.

Dick sighed. “I can’t.” He shook his head and looked at the floor. “I just can’t.”

“Twenty-one years, Dick. Twenty. One. Years. I have no idea, no memory, of the last time we made love. It seems like this is something I should have. We should have.”

He sighed again, shook his head again, looked suddenly much smaller, much older.

“You mean because of her.”

Dick said nothing.

“That’s what you mean, isn’t it. You mean because of her you will not make love with me. With your wife.”

“I don’t want you to think for a second that our marriage unraveled because of her. I can’t have you think that.”

“That’s an interesting choice of words. You can’t have me think that.”

“Madeline, for god’s sake.”

“It doesn’t seem like an unreasonable thing to ask. To know it will be the last time. To have a memory of it.” She added, “ We are still married, you know. Meaning that you’re already a cheater. Meaning that if you’re trying to avoid thinking of yourself as a cheater, well, too late.”

Dick walked out of the room and left the house.

Madeline remained on the bed, in the position with her legs open, for a long time.

No.

That’s not what happened.

That was what a large part of Madeline had wanted to happen. Part of her still wanted to believe that the man she had spent the past twenty-some years with was somehow an honorable man, a man who had strayed into a new love, and who had declared his undying loyalty to it, in the same way that he once had to her.

The truth was this. The minute her knee dropped, her legs parted, she called out her still-husband’s name, “Dick,” — who had come in to ask one question or another –he took one step closer to the bed. And then he took another.

She remembered the tentativeness of their first touches. The awkward reaching of their tongues, venturing for the first time in a long while inside the surface of one another. Her head awhirl in a cacophony of recalled experience, a blur of lightning-quick images. The two of them making love. Fucking. Doing both at once.

“Dan,” she said. “Come here.”

She ran her fingers lightly along the underside of his penis from the base to the tip and back.

He leaned his head back and said, “Ah, Madeline. Your touch.”

No.

That’s not what happened.

She and Dick did not make love. She would never know, would have no memory, of the last time. A tear ran down her cheek into the pillow. She wiped it away to the sound of Dan’s gentle snore.

reclining-woman-1922

art, top to bottom:   Goya. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Bela Czobel

War, and Peace (part 2)

fisherwoman-from-valencia-1916

“Dick. Let’s make love.” And when thought re-entered her head, she added, “Please.”

Her leg had moved up, her knees had fallen open, into that exact position as the words escaped her mouth.

Dick sighed. “I can’t.” He shook his head and looked at the floor. “I just can’t.”

“Twenty-one years, Dick. Twenty. One. Years. I have no idea, no memory, of the last time we made love. It seems like this is something I should have. We should have.”

He sighed again, shook his head again, looked suddenly much smaller, much older.

“You mean because of her.”

Dick said nothing.

“That’s what you mean, isn’t it. You mean because of her you will not make love with me. With your wife.”

“I don’t want you to think for a second that our marriage unraveled because of her. I can’t have you think that.”

“That’s an interesting choice of words. You can’t have me think that.”

“Madeline, for god’s sake.”

“It doesn’t seem like an unreasonable thing to ask. To know it will be the last time. To have a memory of it.” She added, “We are still married, you know. Meaning that you’re already a cheater. Meaning that if you’re trying to avoid thinking of yourself as a cheater, well, too late.”

Dick walked out of the room and left the house.

Madeline remained on the bed, in the position with her legs open, for a long time.

No.

That’s not what happened.

That was what a large part of Madeline had wanted to happen. Part of her still wanted to believe that the man she had spent the past twenty-some years with was somehow an honorable man, a man who had strayed into a new love, and who had declared his undying loyalty to it, in the same way that he once had to her.

The truth was this. The minute her knee dropped, her legs parted, she called out her still-husband’s name, “Dick,” — who had come in to ask one question or another — he took one step closer to the bed. And then he took another.
detroit-industry--detail-from-the-east-wall-diego-rivera

paintings by Joaquin Sorolla and Diego Rivera

War, and Peace

images

By the second week of December, my Lady felt as if she had fast-forwarded through a twenty-year marriage in just slightly more than three months.

She set her jaw against his very existence, calculating how she would bear the number of minutes until she could suggest that they call it a day, go upstairs for the night. At least the flossing ritual would offer her peace. And then, the solace of a lonely sleep, with Dan’s inhumanly perfect profile on the pillow beside her.

Madeline sighed. She rested her hand on Dan’s thigh for a second – a friendly gesture – and told him she was heading upstairs. “Be right up,” Dan said, without turning his head from the TV. “I want to catch a bit more of this, if you don’t mind.”

Madeline was out of the room when she said, over her shoulder, “not a bit.”

When Dan entered the bedroom, she was idly leafing through a magazine. In a different mood, she would have endorsed this particular journalistic effort as a “guilty pleasure,” a concept and a reality which she wholeheartedly supported. Tonight, leaning against the tower of pillows on her bed, she despised its banality, its endlessly recycled topics meant to appeal to the dark recesses of shame and anxiety amalgamated into the creature known as the American Woman. Which meant, of course, that she hated herself for reading it. For falling prey to its sunny, adjective-laden, exclamation-point-heavy!!!, bold and stylized font loaded B U L L S H I T about how to eat, dress, exercise, cut, coif, bleach, dye, tweeze, think, and talk as one’s best possible self, including, needless to say, fucking like a goddess.

frida_kahlo_living_nature_postcard

“Are you in for the night?” Dan asked her.

“Yup.” She pretended intense concentration on her hated rag.

Dan switched off the overhead light, and began to undress. He undid his pants, which were baggy enough that they dropped immediately to the floor. Madeline unconsciously looked up at the sound of their thunk against the wood. She was confronted with the silhouette of his body, naked now from the waist down. Somehow the fact that Dan did not wear underwear – ever – still gave her a thrill, like an exquisite finger had touched a spot deep inside her belly. “God fucking damn it,” she thought to herself.

Dan crossed his arms, grabbed the sides of his shirt and pulled it over his head, rocking his hips first forward – just slightly — and back again along with the movement of the shirt as it climbed his abdomen, his chest, and down his arms to the reaches of his fingertips. He gathered his clothes from the floor, and stood in the dim light of the room with such an utter lack of self consciousness or guile that the ridiculous word “swoon” actually flashed across Madeline’s mind.

As if pulled by some string attached to that inner finger, Madeline’s foot inched up towards her other knee and fell to the side, leaving her legs open, wide, facing toward Dan.

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

It was years before. Her still-husband Dick had come – had made an appointment to come — to the house while the children were at school in order to gather some of his things. She had not known exactly what to do with herself, and had gone into the bedroom to escape, to stay out of the way of this stranger she had married to for more than 20 years.

He came into the bedroom. He asked some question or other.

She had no idea what it was. The slight stoop of his shoulders she had not noticed before. The fact that he wore his glasses all the time these days. The awkward boyish uncertainty that made him speak just a bit too loud. The words were out of her mouth without her own knowledge, it seemed.

“Dick. Let’s make love.” And when thought re-entered her head, she added, “Please.”

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artwork by Frida Kahlo

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?”
buenas_noches_senor_dali_ii_by_golpista-d4m8f33

Artwork, top to bottom:

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

“The Story’s Told,” excerpt from the novel “Pushing the River”

The continuation of this chapter describes a character’s very first signs of significant mental illness.  In the novel overall, the character of Billie Rae is relatively minor; but the looming presence of her illness is pervasive, as it is in the lives of all who have significant illnesses, and all those who surround them and love them.

john ward mirror

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 her 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.Alia_fig3

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 be getting 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.

girl-in-front-of-mirror-1932-1

Paintings, top to bottom: John Ward, Alia E. El-Bermani, Pablo Picasso