“They Died at Home,” part 3, from “Pushing the River” #MondayBlogs

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The blazing azalea bush was in full bloom, and my Lady was still being carried around inside when her mama and daddy bought their house. She knowed this from a photograph of the two of them standing in front of the azalea that spring, and another one of just her mama the very next spring holding a wild-haired infant of a few months when the bush broke out again.

And the boy was growing and kicking inside of my Lady while she and the Husband trudged around looking at place after place. They done their level best to look past the scraps of other people’s lives and to gaze ahead, trying to picture if the mortar and brick that stood around them could ever be a true home. It was early days for them, and the Husband could tell when his pregnant wife was working hard to recall the stoic spirit of her own mama, setting her chin against the desolation rising up behind her eyes. He reached for her hand, and he kissed it. “We’ll find it, baby. We will.”

She growed up thinking that this was the way the world was meant to be. You growed up and you found a worthy partner and you started a family and you made a home to raise them in. And you stayed. You weathered whatever came along, and you stayed. You kept right on staying until the moment of your very last breath on Earth, and you did it in the place where you’d lived.

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“They Died at Home,” part 2, from “Pushing the River” #MondayBlogs

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

Instead he picked up the phone. “Bob,” he said. “Bob, I think Mary’s dead. I’m not sure, but I think that maybe she is,” which was an especially sad and strange thing to say considering that he was a doctor, and he knowed right down into his bones that she had breathed her last.

Five years later, he was a shadow of his former self, which ain’t saying much. He spent most of that five years setting in one chair, at a table in his dining room. From that chair, he sorted through his piles of mail, and leafed through his magazines, and sipped at his bowls of lukewarm broth, and watched whatever happened to be on the television. He drank a goodly amount, and he smoked so much that the walls of the house – which had been painted a cheery eggshell white under Mary’s watch – looked for all the world like the entire major league had been spitting tobacco juice at them for the five years since she passed. He ate nothing but canned soup. Chicken noodle, or cream of mushroom, and he drank his whiskey straight, in big tumbler glasses they had gotten as a wedding present with his initials etched in a diamond pattern. The callous on his thumb was substantial from running it across the letter “M,” over and over, the one initial they had in common.

His hands shook bad, his lungs and liver was both shot to hell, he could hardly feel the ground underneath his own feet cause he no longer had the sense of them being attached to his legs. But worst of all for him, his eyesight was near gone, so he couldn’t see to read his beloved newspaper no more. He drank his full pot of coffee and smoked a great many cigarettes each morning while squinting at it, holding it close to one eye first, and then the other; but the news running on the television was giving him all the information he got, really.

My lady was setting there at that table with him, reading him from the newspaper about how them 1,000 miners way off in Poland was barricaded in the a mine in the Silesian coal district, cause they was the last folks still resisting martial law over there. A couple of the boys had been killed, like usual with such goings on, and my Lady was just getting to the details when her daddy placed his cigarette carefully in the ashtray, got a real surprised look on his face, and slid right on off of his chair and onto the floor. He, too, had died at home.

 

photo of  John B. Monier by Barbara Monier

“They Died at Home,” excerpt from “Pushing the River”

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Her own mama and daddy died at home. Her mama simply did not wake up one morning with no warning whatsoever. She gone to bed the night before same as every night of her twenty years in her big bed in the house where she had spent the better part of her life trying to make the very best of a bad situation, that bad situation being marrying my Lady’s father. She tended the flowers in the beds, and washed the drapes once a year like clockwork, and made sure the little ones was dressed and fed and minding their manners. She joined the PTA and the church guild and the neighborhood ladies’ group that met once a month for a light luncheon and cards. She woke up every morning of her twenty years in the house with a determination to face the new day with capital g Grace and to push whatever suffering somebody else in her postion might have felt under the rugs and between the shades of the blinds and to the dark and far corners.

One day my Lady’s daddy came up the stairs from his morning habit of coffee drinking and newspaper reading and thought to hisself: “Why that’s funny. It sounds like the god damn alarm clock is buzzing.”

My Lady’s mama was laying in the bed still and peaceful as could be with the alarm clock screaming like a banshee. Her daddy came on over to the bed and shook at her big toe as it poked up from under the covers. He called her name into the daytime blackness of the room, the bright July sunlight held back cept for the littlest peek here and there. He went over and pushed the peg of the infernal alarm clock, and stood there with his index finger still pushing on it, cause he had the inkling that when he took his finger off of that peg, he would have to figure out what to do next. And he had the further inkling that this could lead to a chain of events that may alter the entire remainder of his natural life.

 

“Twenty Years,” an excerpt from the novel “Pushing the River”

 

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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.

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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.

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Art, top to bottom: Edward Hopper, Edvard Munch, Edward Hopper

My Blog Celebrates Its 1st BIRTHDAY!

I celebrate the 1st anniversary of my entrance into the world of blogging by re-posting the original, somewhat explanatory entry, setting out my intentions for this newly-birthed venture.   Just  like the human babies we give birth to, the blog has veered in unexpected directions, provided unforeseen challenges, and given an abundance of delight I could not have envisioned.  And on that note, happy 31st birthday to my son.  For once, words fail me in any feeble attempt to rejoice aloud for his presence in my life.

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I laughed out loud when I read one of my fellow author/new follower’s byline: “The only author on Twitter who doesn’t know how to use Twitter.”  Ha!  So true of me when I began blogging lo these many [two] months ago.   In a moment of utter bewilderment,  on day #1 of blogging,  I chose the byline above, figuring I would change it as soon as something [anything!] more creative and, um, interesting struck me.    Somehow, however, in my bewilderment I managed to come up with something that strikes me as perfect, as it encapsulates so many things about me and the way I write, at least at my best: it’s straightforward yet ironic, terse, and has questionable punctuation.

It’s also an accurate summary of what I endeavor to do with this blog:  cite passages/chapters from my two completed novels, insofar as they seem relevant to what I am writing, or thinking about, now; put up some fresh stuff from the 3rd novel-in-progress – sometimes because a sentence, or a paragraph, or even a wee bit more, ended up on the page in a way that produced that longed-for “Aaahhhhhhh,” the sense that I have nailed it.  And like an exhuberant little kid, I just want to share the feeling.  Sometimes I will be looking for feedback, comments, or – in those dark moments of the writing soul — even a lifeline.

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To be a writer is to be in the world in a particular sort of way.  Writers – of any and all kinds – are observers, reflectors, distillers.  On occasion  I will be writing about things in the world, in my life, my community, my family (fair warning!) that I just simply need to write about.

Many, many people – and you know who you are – have asked me to write about my [vast, sadly] experiences with online dating.  This, however, is not something I am likely to be writing about.  I have oft been heard to say that dating at mid-life is very thin veneer of fun covering over an abyss of hurt and loneliness.  All of us doing it are, in fact, in the same boat.  And, whereas some of those in the boat do have hilarious “idiosyncracies,” well, it just ain’t fair game.

But, for those of you who cannot get enough, there is a bit about it in novel #3.   My next post will contain a snippet…

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“The Story’s Told,” part 2, from the novel “Pushing the River”

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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.

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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 would take 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 would take 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.”

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.”

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photos by Jock Sturges

painting by Andrew Wyeth

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

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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.

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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 looked out the window so she could be sure she’d be the first one to catch a glimpse when her big sister returned one day.

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Painting by Frank Weston Benson

 

“Marie Falls into” except from “Pushing the River,” a novel-in-progress

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“I have so much I need to get done today.” Marie squeezed herself into a small corner of the sofa that was closest to the door, as if the proximity to an exit and the sheer discomfort of her position would magically propel her. She cradled the cup of untouched coffee between her two hands and blew across the steaming surface.

Marie alternated between two mood states that Madeline thought of as more or less “off” and “on.” In the “off” times, Marie walked with her eyes cast on the floor. She moved with such stealth that it was nearly impossible to know where she may be in the house, or if she was even there at all. She shrugged in response to any communication directed at her. In other words, she gave the ardent impression of wishing to be invisible, or perhaps to disappear entirely. During the “on” times, she could be shockingly talkative. The shifts came as a bit of a jolt to Madeline, when the same young woman who had slunk around in the deep shadows for a time suddenly plopped down on the sofa and became downright chatty, mustering an astonishing string of words, sentences, paragraphs, ideas that were not only exceptionally articulate, but were also delivered so blindingly goddamn fast that Madeline had to concentrate especially hard on the content lest she get carried away by the breathtaking delivery itself.

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She had an assortment of expression that she peppered frequently through any and every subject she happened to be addressing, a trait Madeline found so utterly charming she waited for each new occurrence and was brought very nearly to tears by them. These included:

At all whatsoever
Nonsense
I mean, I feel like
Incomparable boob
I mean, are you fucking kidding me?
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and Madeline’s personal favorite:
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“Did you hear my big fight with John last night?” Marie asked.

“What!? No!” Madeline responded.

“Nonsense. I can’t believe you didn’t hear it. I was seriously screaming at him. Because
he was being a complete ninnyhammer, I mean, I feel like he started it because he was actually screaming into the phone at me, I don’t even remember a time when he’s yelled at me like that, ever, before, when he was that mad and yelling so loud I actually had to hold the receiver away from my ear a couple of times, I mean, are you fucking kidding me? Seriously, Madeline, it’s a little hard to believe you when you say that you didn’t hear any of this.”

“I seriously didn’t. Are you OK? Is everything OK?”

“It’s fine, it’s fine. We talked again this morning. For a long time. That’s why I’m running so late and I can’t do this, I can’t do this right now. I can’t sit down on this spot on this couch and next thing I know some sort of thing has taken possession of me, hours of our lives have passed, and I realize that once again I have fallen into the conversational vortex that exists in this room! I do not have time for this today at all whatsoever.” She paused. She shifted just slightly from her previous position of being bashed against the arm of the sofa.

“Possibly, it’s already too late,” Madeline said.

“Nonsense,” said Marie.

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Paintings by Milton Avery

 

“Coffee” part 2

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No one could ever figure out whether it was one specific thing, or a compounding of smaller things that tipped the scales for the old coffee pot. Every so often, the scoundrel would simply refuse to allow the brewed coffee to flow smoothly into the carafe below, but would erupt like a volcano, spewing a scalding muck of boiling water and coffee grounds across the entire kitchen counter, sending rivulets down the cabinet doors and dark streams across the floor.

It had happened to everyone in the family at one time or another, and each of the family members had their own unique response: it happened to Madeline only once. When it happened to the Little One, she practiced putting the various parts and pieces together over and over and over, until she was certain that she had mastered it. But once satisfied that mastery had been achieved, she promptly forgot every step of the procedure and needed a refresher course each time she started anew. The Boy managed to be someplace else, nearly always, when a pot of coffee needed to be made — he so relished the cared-for feeling that came from someone placing a freshly-made, wonderfully warm, aromatic cup in his hand. On the other hand, if elected, he held no rancor nor possessed any fear about the crusty old pot; he approached it with an even, calm attitude, expecting that everything would turn out just fine. And it did.

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Marie gave it a very wide berth. She snarled at it, scowled in its direction when she went about the business of her cooking. Truth be told, she preferred to not even pour herself a cup from a fully-finished batch, so convinced was she that the diabolical device could not be trusted under any circumstances whatsoever and was, in fact, capable of genuine Evil.

Marie’s distaste of the wicked pot was so great that she did not budge from her treetop, arty nest until she heard Madeline’s feet hit the floor of her bedroom below at approximately 6:58. Even then, Marie did not move a muscle until a safe period of time had passed, and she could descend the stairs with certainty that the morning’s fresh pot of coffee awaited. Which she generally did not drink, although she usually agreed to have Madeline pour her a cup, noting the obvious pleasure it gave her mother-in-law; but Madeline would later find the stone-cold, untouched mug squirreled away in a corner of the kitchen.

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After years of managing the opening shift in coffee joints, Marie had long ago lost the ability to sleep in. She awakened each day sometime between four a.m. and five, and having her life spread out before her in one large room enabled her to accomplish a great deal in the hours before Madeline opened her eyes to the new day. By the time “good morning’s” passed from each of them to the other, Marie had: read passages from a variety of books that recent events brought to mind; corresponded, both on paper and via email, with people across the world who had stirred her soul into a permanent, unmovable, ferocious loyalty; written in her journal; scanned vintage anatomical drawings; continued the eternal process of organizing her thousands and thousands of photographs taken from world travels; jotted down ideas for a new children’s book she was writing; and curled up in the corner of the room so she could manage a long, impassioned, whispered conversation with her husband in a voice so hushed that Madeline would not even have the barest murmur invade her dreams.

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“A Girl Moves,” part 2, #MondayBlogs #amwriting

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Marie made four or five trips to and from the U-Haul, and up and down the three flights of stairs, for every one that Madeline made. Having endured two days of driving in a cramped and un-airconditioned U-Haul, Proust was not about to leave Marie’s side. He followed right at her heels — crossing the street to the van, jumping into the incrementally growing empty space in the cargo area, wagging his mini tail as the women piled on each load, and yipping his high-pitched howling bark at completely random intervals — the entire time.

The U-Haul sat empty in what seemed to be an astonishingly short amount of time. Madeline stood in the street and gaped into the vast cavern of vacant 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.

“I’ll clean it out later,” Marie said over her shoulder. “I want to do some unpacking.”

“What are you talking about – ‘clean it out?’ It looks pretty cleaned out to me.”

Marie did not respond, as she was already on her way into the house.

Madeline leaned her head into the stairwell to the third floor and called up to Marie, “Anything I can do to help?”

A distant voice, dimmed by mountain ranges of boxes and belongings that lay between the two of them, called back, “No. Thanks. I’ll feel better if I can get a little bit done.”

Madeline attempted to read and otherwise occupy herself despite the fact that it sounded as if elephants were tossing very large pieces of furniture around, two stories over her head. Every so often Proust let out a machine-gun burst of yipping, serving as Marie’s doppelganger mixture of impatient insistent cheerleader taskmaster.

Amidst the cacophony of chaos, Madeline found herself welling up with a strange wave of utter peacefulness. The Little One could hear the occasional yip, clunk, rumble and clatter while she talked to her mother on the phone, and Madeline mentioned her wonder at her own surprising sense of peace. “Ha,” the Little One said, “Face it, Mom. This is your dream come true.”

“What do you mean?” Madeline asked.

“The house is filling up again,” she said.

When Madeline hung up the phone, a ripe orange glow from the late September sunset flooded the room, and she noted a distinct lack of clatter coming from above. Again she climbed the stairs and leaned her head into the stairwell. “Marie? How’s it going up there?”

“It’s going OK. Come on up if you want.”

Madeline slowed as she neared the top of the attic stairs, stopping a few steps from the top. Marie sat on an old wooden chair at a beloved kitchen hutch she had rescued long ago and now transformed into a desk. She was leafing casually through a stack of papers when she looked over at Madeline and said “What? I’m taking a break for a while.”
Madeline had every expectation of utter catastrophe, but nothing could have prepared for the scene she beheld.

The sizeable room looked as if a gifted and meticulous set decorator had labored long and hard to create a masterwork from the following task: assemble a young woman’s room that is both crowded and painstakingly decorated. Give prominent placement to her many hundreds of books and tapes —  dad's collection likewise to her artwork that has been collected from friends and strangers alike since she was a child. Make clear that she is a lifelong denizen of thrift stores, where she has spent enormous amounts of time scanning the tossed-aside detritus of others’ lives for objects that speak directly, and deeply, to her. Demonstrate that her aesthetic is completely idiosyncratic, and fully formed. Fill all of the space. Make clear that each and every item in the room has a meaningful history, and has been placed with great care.

Proust lay at the foot of the perfectly-made bed, radiating serenity in a way that suggested he was always this calm, and furthermore, was prepared to chest bump anyone who hinted otherwise.

The house is filling up again, Madeline thought.

 

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