Stories: An Introduction*

More than fifteen thousand years ago, late Stone Age man fashioned hollow tubes from wood, bone, and plants. Using these tubes, they blew pulverized pigments against the vast cave walls now known as Lascaux.  Others dug and gouged the walls to engrave them.  Before there was language, before there was writing, man told stories.         

            Every story serves a purpose, even if it is to simply relay a message.  Without stories, there would be no history, we would not learn from mistakes, nor would we honor past heroes.  We use stories to make sense of our world and to share that understanding with others.

            For sixty-four years, stories have swirled within me.  They circled around in my head, and when they had taken enough shape inside of me, I wrote them down. 

            There have been no stories inside of me since the Sickness.  They have stopped.

            I move from room to room in my new home.  I sit in different chairs, at different desks and tables. I try out both the east view and the west.  I end up on the couch — the one I brought from my home of the previous five years – in the room that possesses the most effortless blend of Gino and me.  The room is comfortable and embracing and breathtaking, all at once.

            I sit on the couch resolved to not move until a story – a skeleton of a story, the outline of a character who may later tell a story, any kernel whatsoever – gathers itself from the swirling mists of gray nothingness and gives me the barest hint that something will take shape.

            I have been a writer all my life. 

            I sit on the couch.  I scratch at tiny particles of dried food on the upholstery.  I switch from the velvet pillow to the chenille one, giving it a number of sturdy punches to fluff the filling.  I sit for so long – perfectly still — that I wonder if I no longer have the ability to make any part of my body move.  This seems possible to me.  It seems like an explanation for my paralysis.

*I am actively working on my fifth book, a novel with the tentative title The Reading.  The book opens with an older author named Esme reading her work to an audience. An unexpected — and unrecognized — visitor attends her reading and brings events of forty years past squarely into her present.   The foreground story of Esme reflecting on a year of her life is loosely based — in theme and in structure — on the J.D. Salinger short story for which the character is named (“For Esme — with Love and Squalor”).  Running in the background is the idea that the author bore witness to things in that one year of her past that she believes foretold the awful mess we are in today (Trump, divisions and their resulting strife, inequity, the handling of Covid-19, etc.). Hence, the title The Reading also implies an experience that divines the future.  The J.D. Salinger short story and The Reading are ultimately tales of hope and recovery, though set against a background of loneliness, alienation, and trauma.

The excerpt above is from the Introduction section of The Reading.

Aggressively Iconoclast

I’m so excited to have just received my Advance Proof copy of THE ROCKY ORCHARD as we make our way to the JUNE 2 RELEASE!  Meantime, here is a new excerpt from novel #5, THE READING.  This passage begins where the previous post stopped.

college.2

Tom continued around the circle making introductions.  I decided to preempt the possibility of tanked-up frosh teetering to a standing position and shaking my hand by saying, “Hey, really, don’t get up.  No need.”

“This is Pauly,” Tom said. Over there is Nathan.  The tall guy is Chip.  And right here is Natalie.  She’s from Texas.”

I had no idea why Tom singled out the Texas information, or what I was supposed to do with it.  I waved kind of lamely at everyone and said, “Hi, all.”  I turned to Natalie.  “Yeah…Texas.  Cool accent, I’m guessing.”

Natalie laughed and said, “Well, I’m thinkin’ it pegs me pretty quick as not being from around here.”  She was right.  Her drawl was leisurely and thick – to such a degree that it seemed like it must be deliberate.  Natalie had very long, disturbingly unhealthy hair.  She was quite lean, with long legs and big boobs that she seemed intent on displaying, as her polo shirt was a good couple of sizes too small.  Wait.  Polo shirt, again.

“Oh,” Tom said, “Oh, God, I’m so sorry.  This is Adele.”

I felt like an awful person for taking one look at Adele and understanding completely why Tom would have forgotten about her.  She was little, with hair and facial features that appeared to be all one color.  She seemed to blend into the background so much that I had a difficult time focusing on her.  I thought that this was probably the story of her life – not even being noticed, not significant-seeming enough to be overlooked because she hadn’t been seen in the first place.   It made me want to like her, to hope that I would. “Adele!”  I said.  “Cool.  I’ve only known one other Adele in my life.  She was the piano teacher for my ballet class when I was a kid.  She was a riot.”

“Yeah, it’s not a very common name,” Adele said.  I felt an enormous sense of relief that I was able to overcome my initial inclination to laugh when I heard Adele’s voice.  High-pitched, squeaky, nasal in a way that seemed to go straight from her mouth to that spot on your forehead, right between your eyes.  Instant headache.

“Adele the pianist chain smoked the entire time she was playing classical ballet pieces for us little girls.  The ashtray on the edge of her keyboard would be filled by the end of an hour long class. Her voice was so low, and so raspy-hoarse that I’m pretty sure she must have been hitting the whiskey pretty hard, too.” I pantomime like I’m taking slugs from a bottle.

I am trying too hard.  Way too hard.  I probably have been for a while, certainly since that idiotic remark about “who’s with me, brothers?”  I’m some exaggerated version of myself.  Aggressively iconoclast, or something.  Thank God it’s gotten too dark for everyone to see me blushing.  I can feel the heat in my cheeks.  The pulsing at my temples.

trying-hard-th_orig

I do this thing sometimes where I sort of turn off the sound.  I stop listening —  just for a minute — to what people are saying.  I shut out the words.  I watch them then, their gestures and their movements.  With the sound track off, I can see different things.  I saw that everyone was trying too hard.  Every person sitting around in this random little group collected by the super extroverted Tom on our third full day of our first year at college.

We had a clean slate. We were all brand new. Each of us understood this in our own way, and the knowledge was at once thrilling and terrifying.  We had no idea, none whatsoever, what we were meant to do. We introduced ourselves to other brand new people who knew nothing about who we were before we arrived here.  Whether we were the one who spent every Saturday night in the bathroom, leaning into the mirror as we squeezed the zits under the harsh lights. Whether we were the one who left behind a sweet and tender first love full of breathy whispers and dreamy sighs.  Whether we were the one whose parents travelled the world and left us completely alone while we rode a unicycle through the maze of our hallways.  Whatever we had been, whatever triumphs and suffering lay behind us, we began anew.

trying too hard

 

 

 

A History of Polo Shirts

Lots of news coming soon for the June launch of my novel, The Rocky Orchard.  Meanwhile, full speed ahead with the next novel, tentatively titled The Reading.  Here is a new snippet:

 

students

Tom gestured to a one of the guys who lounged at his feet.  “This is my roommate, Dave.  He’s a genius.  Certified.  148 IQ.”

Dave tilted his chin very slightly, made a nanosecond of eye contact, and uttered a barely audible “Hey” while neither opening his mouth nor moving his lips.

“Hey, Dave,” I said back.  Giving him the once-over, I had no trouble believing that he may well be a genius.  I just wasn’t sure what that meant, in the real world, I mean.  It made me think of one of the college visits that I’d gone on.  I don’t know what in the world about me, at least as it had been translated onto a college application, said to the folks in charge, “Let’s put her with the engineers!”  After the official meetings and tours were completed, I was supposed to head off to one of the dorms for a slice of authentic college life – in this case, having dinner in the cafeteria and hanging around afterward with a group of freshman engineering students.  I don’t even know where to begin.  Honestly, it seemed as if they must have been sent by a casting agency, because a more universally pale, socially awkward, tic-laden, mismatched plaid-wearing group of young men (and one virtually silent woman) could not possibly have come together without someone pulling the strings.  I loved them.  I wished that they could stay on that floor of that dorm for the rest of their lives, because I understood that they would never again, once they left their mutual companionship behind, they would never have a community of people who got them – who accepted their quirks unconditionally and who spoke their language.  It made me want to adopt them.  But because I knew it was completely unrealistic for a seventeen-year-old to adopt a group of engineering students, I wished for them to stay right where they were.  I settled for staying up most of the night playing a highly odd game with the one guy who everyone referred to as the certified genius.  We moved little pieces of purple plastic back and forth on a palm-sized triangular playing board.  I had absolutely no idea what was going on, but the magnitude of Ken’s delight at having a willing partner – well, it seemed like the very least I could do.  You don’t see that kind of unbridled joy every day, even if the bearer of that joy had never worn a pair of matching socks in his life.

Dave had a similar look.  He would have fit right in with the engineers, though they had been – within the limits of their own world – loud and gregarious and very friendly to me, though a lot of their friendliness lay in the range of unselfconsciously batting around math jokes at one another.  Dave looked as if he had never been comfortable anywhere, at any time.  He was doing his best to appear as normal as he could manage.

play-girl-kicking-ball

Also, Dave was wearing a polo shirt. I had literally never seen a kid my own age wearing a polo shirt.  Well, except for Danny, the kid who lived across the street diagonally from Mom and me.  Every so often, his grandpa would take him out to dinner at the grandpa’s country club.  I didn’t have much of an idea what a country club was, but all of us neighborhood kids had a highly unfavorable impression.  Danny would have to break off the from the neighborhood scene when his mother called him.  A while later, he’d come back out with his strawberry blond hair neatly combed and plastered to his scalp.  He’d have on a bright white polo shirt that radiated the pungent smell of bleach.  Worst of all, he’d had to trade in his worn and beloved sneakers for a polished pair of penny loafers.  We’d all stand around with him while he waited for his grandpa to pick him up and take him to dinner at the club.  We kept a respectable distance – bouncing our balls, straddling our bikes, kicking little pebbles – while Danny stood stock still for fear of getting a single speck of dirt on himself. We felt deep solidarity with his misery for being forced to give up a beautiful summer day, but more, for being forced to be someone different than the Danny that we knew.

shirt.danny

 

 

Fine Print

writer

I had always wanted to be a writer; that’s why I had chosen that school.  The college had a special program for people who knew, right from the beginning, that they wanted to major in English literature.  That was the closest you could come to studying writing in those days – you could become an English major and take as many creative writing courses as you could cram in along the way.  No more than ten people were accepted into this program each year; then those ten embarked on a double credit, year-long journey with a single professor.

I got caught up the picture.  Me, hunched over a worn, time-darkened wood desk that generations of eager students had used before me.  I would be accompanied by the gentle hum of my Sears portable electric typewriter, bolstered and enthused by continuous cups of rich, black coffee.  I would dream up characters as iconic as Big Chief and Nurse Ratchett.  I would send the characters on journeys as epic as those of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables.  I would devise endings as satisfying as those of Charles Dickens, but with structure and prose as thrillingly avant garde as Virginia Woolf.

I would find my voice.  I would ferret it out from the bricks and the stone and the ivy.  I would find my voice, and I would let it sing.

Turns out, I really should have read the fine print.

dishwasher

 

I came from a place where dreams were small.  Not small because folks lacked the courage, or the vision, to dream bigger, but because small dreams were a great pleasure, a gentle way to approach a life of contentment.  The people across the street from mom and me lived in a tiny little house.  As a family of five, they were crawling all over one another just going about the business of living their lives.   They made giant bowls of popcorn and watched TV together.  They whipped up batches of frosting for no special reason and made them into dessert sandwiches with graham crackers.  They had loud arguments.  They laughed all the time.  When the older two children were already teenagers, they were able to afford their first dishwasher.  They rang our doorbell to tell us the news.  They invited us over to see it and offered us frosting sandwiches.  They walked on air, such was the level of their glee.

When it was time for their oldest boy to go to college, he didn’t look past our home state.  No one did.  There were a million colleges to choose from as well as the state universities, and desiring to reach further than the many options at hand seemed ungrateful somehow, a muddle of priorities.

My high school made a big deal of me being the first student ever to be accepted to this college.  I’m pretty sure that I may have been the first person who had ever applied. In many ways, I embraced – and even idealized – the life of small pleasures and measured dreams.  It was a big stretch for me to think about applying to this college in the first place.  In truth, I couldn’t even begin to picture what it might really be like to be so far away, in so many different ways, from anything I had experienced.

As I said, I should have read the fine print.

 

Four months until the June launch of my novel The Rocky Orchard!. Meantime, onward with my newest novel, tentatively titled The Reading.  I hope you enjoy the excerpt above.

A Shower in Winter

dorm.shower

Seven o’clock on a Thursday night.  Early.  A seemingly random time to take a shower, but I had drawn out dinner as long as I could with endless cups of coffee, and I wasn’t ready for the evening – meaning either gathering folks to head to the bar, or possibly studying something.  It was mid-winter, and the icy gray relentlessness had dug its claws deep into me.  I took showers at all kinds of haphazard times, when I needed to feel the profound warmth that only full immersion can bring.  Growing up, I relied on baths.  But there were no such things as bathtubs at college.  Nor were there children.  Nor dogs.  There were all kinds of things that you never saw; they simply disappeared from one’s landscape for years.

I had worked up a bountiful cloud of steam.  The shower’s intense heat within the cold of the marble bathroom cause the column of steam to shoot toward the ceiling in a swirling frenzy.  I closed my eyes and luxuriated in the feeling of my fingertips massaging the shampoo all through my scalp while the water fell on my abdomen and cascaded down my legs.  With my eyes still closed, I turned around, threw my head back and rinsed the shampoo from my hair, feeling the rivers of suds tumble down my back and pool around my feet.

shower.feet

When my hair was fully rinsed, I opened my eyes.  A pair of dark brown eyes stared straight at me, framed by the fingertips of two hands.  The top of his head, encased in a ratty dark blue stocking cap, poked up from the back wall of the shower stall.  The eyes.  All I could see were the eyes.  I couldn’t figure out what in the world he was standing on, that he would be able to look over the top of the shower wall.  I couldn’t figure out what the hell he was doing, meaning, what, exactly, was his plan?

He vanished.

The silence was deadly.

I whipped around to face the other direction.  Part of his body was raised over the opposite shower wall.  He seemed to be hoisting himself.  He seemed to be trying to crawl over the top of the shower wall to get inside the stall with me.  It didn’t seem like a good idea to scream.  I knew there was no one else around.  I figured he was probably carrying – if not a gun, then certainly a knife.  From what I could see, he seemed huge.  Six feet three, maybe six-four. It just didn’t seem like a good idea to scream.

Intruder with Knife

In the few seconds I took to weigh my options, I saw him out of the corner of my eye.  That eye again.  One eye this time.  Looking at me.  Looking through the slight space between the shower door and the door frame.  The bulk of his body was directly behind the shower door.  I put the full force of my weight into it and pushed the shower door right into his face.  Right into his fucking face.  Fast thinker, he turned out to be.  He shoved the door back toward me, and he ran like hell out of the bathroom and down the five flights of stairs and out the freshman quadrangle gate and into the night.

I stood in the bathroom, with the shower still running, shivering head to toe.  My teeth chattered.  My body, bright pink from the scorching water, felt like it had no blood in it at all, as if the terror had leached it right out of my skin.  At some point I turned off the water but felt swallowed by the silence, terrified by the absence of the sound.  I turned the shower back on, focused hard on the sound of the stream so I could hold it inside of me, then turned the handle off again.

I wrapped myself in my towel and looked at my reflection in the mirror above the perfectly polished sinks.  I needed to see myself.  I needed to make sure that I was still there, still me.  Though I had seen the man with the huge, bloodshot brown eyes bolting down the stairs after he tore out of the bathroom, I couldn’t trust what I had seen.  I stayed in the bathroom for a long time, then tentatively, slowly, cracked the bathroom door open a bare sliver and looked around for any sign that he may still be close.

Nothing.  The polished marble of the common area on the fourth-floor landing, the old staircase, four closed doors.  Wait, not all of the doors were closed.  The door to my dorm room was ajar.

intruder