My fourth novel, The Rocky Orchard, released on May 12!
The following day, I did a virtual launch on Facebook Live. One of the viewers posted a comment asking me what had been my favorite scene in the book to write. Please take a look at the following video clip in which I describe how a particular scene — which solved a pivotal writing issue in the book — came to me in a dream.
And please check out the book! I’d love to know what you think!
“You’re always gonna be lonely, you know that, right?”
That was the voice inside of her head. That was how it spoke to her – as if another version of herself was sitting in a chair, a few feet away from her, addressing her as “you” from a supposed outside, objective perspective.
She thought of the voice as a separate person. She thought that person was pretty much a snarky little bitch a great deal of the time. Although, to be fair, she also duly noted when the voice took on the role of a vigilant cheerleader. She would leap onto the chair she normally sat on, throw her arms in the air, and fervently exclaim “Good job!”
She didn’t know if all of this was exceptionally odd, or if every single other person who had ever lived had experienced the exact same thing. It was not the kind of thing people usually spoke of. “Hey, does the voice inside of your head speak to you in the first person or the second, or perhaps even the third? Is the voice kind, critical, or frighteningly neutral?” She could not remember a single social gathering in which this topic had come up.
“So, as I was saying: you are always going to be lonely. It is your legacy.”
Sometimes, it was not entirely clear if the voice was being a snarky little bitch, or a compassionate companion.
Yesterday’s twinkling lights quit working and now fill garbage cans. The festive flourishes that merry-makers painstakingly hung in windows and yards and around doors have been ravaged by time and weather. My Christmas tree has become so dry that every time my dog brushes it with her wagging tail, needles rain forth in a downpour of fire hazard.
The season of cheer, of good will, of hopefulness, is past. Not even the brain-scrambling, body-slamming, wretched but familiar hangover of the New Year remains to keep us company.
January 2nd. Nothing ahead but bleak, relentless winter, as far as the soul can see. A landscape of emotional white out.
I have wandered around this landscape for too many years – this relentless tundra of January 2nd status. But it is a New Year. And with whatever mixture of revelry and reflection we rang in 2018, here we stand. We renew our vow to begin again.
Madeline and Dan sat at the dining room table, blowing on their spoonfuls of piping hot, warmed-up lentils.
“So, have you thought about when you’re going to tell your ex that you’re in a new quote relationship unquote?”
Dan’s spoon stopped in mid-air. He leaned all the way back in his chair. “Why in the world would I tell her that?” He looked at Madeline as if she were utterly mad.
It was Madeline’s turn to sit back in her chair. She scanned Dan’s face for some flicker that was not there. “Um, yesterday, you said you had been thinking about it. You said you thought you needed to tell her.”
“I couldn’t possibly have said that, because there is no possible way that I would think of telling her.”
That was the conversation — and the end of any further conversation– during last evening’s dinner.
Madeline was going over it in her head as she nuzzled her cheek against the top of Dylan’s head. She certainly knew by now that Dan had a seriously crap memory; but this seemed to go well beyond the usual. It had been one night before, as they sat in those same chairs at that same dining room table, digging into take-out food from the local favorite Chinese spot. Through a mouthful of Szechuan broccoli, Dan said, “I’ve been thinking about Nancy. I’ve been thinking that I need to tell her about you. I mean, even though the “relationship” relationship has been over for years, her friendship is really important to me. I think it’s the right thing to do. I need to tell her.”
Madeline had said something along the lines of “oh” in response, not actually caring one way or another if Dan told some ex-lover Across the Pond about their…whatever-it-was. Perhaps this would have mattered to her a great deal if times were a bit different, she thought. But when you had police knocking on your door – twice in one night – and child protective services filling out forms in your living room, priorities tended to shift.
A grim picture entered her mind. What if her memory was just as crap as Dan’s? What if she just happened to remember that particular conversation, whereas there were countless others that she did not recall. What if, God forbid, she and Dan actually had the same conversations over and over and over? And, if that wasn’t already the case, was that the inevitable future?
Madeline saw herself sitting in the chair that her parents let her take from her room at home to her room at college. The super comfy arm chair with the flesh-covered, bizarrely nautically-pattered slipcover. She ran her fingers along the welted seams while she read her way through her college years. The cover of the book was bright red. She had taken an anthropology course on Varying Meanings of Life and Death to fulfill some requirement or other, and had ended up fascinated, pouring over the descriptions of other lands and other people, regaling her roommates at the dinner table with tidbits she could not wait to share.
The one that bubbled up from deep memory just then was this: there was a society in Spain – she was fairly sure it was Spain – where the people believed that life and death are not moments, but rather processes. A person emerges gradually during childhood as life grows; likewise life retreats from a person gradually as they age.
When does that begin, Madeline wondered? Has it already?
Art, top to bottom: Paul Gauguin, Frida Kahlo, Paul Gauguin
This is the 3rd posting for this continued chapter. The final paragraph of the previous post is repeated for continuity.
“Really?” Madeline said. She did delight in this man who had never been around a baby, never held a baby in his entire 55-year-old life. She had watched him stand at a terrified, awkward distance when he came to the hospital after Dylan was born. She had watched him thaw, gradually at first. She had seen him become mesmerized. She had heard him say, more than once, that maybe, no definitely, if he had met her earlier in his life, the two of them would have would have made a family together. Fuck. What do you say to that? And here he was, offering to mix a bottle of infant formula for a baby whose 15-year-old mother was catching up on her sleep with some lost boy named Jose, because she was pissed at her baby daddy who had flirted with another girl thousands of miles away.
Dan left the room and returned a few brief seconds later. “There’s no formula left. None.”
He retrieved the empty container from the kitchen and held it out to her, shaking it around for emphasis.
Madeline sighed heavily.
“She needs to figure this out,” Dan said. “She insists she wants this baby, and she needs to figure this out.”
“She’s fifteen years old,” Madeline said. “She ain’t gonna figure out shit.”
“Well, as long as she’s here, she’s gonna try.” Dan turned on his heels and sprang up the stairs to the second floor. Madeline held her breath, picturing Dan clenching and unclenching his jaw in her head. The lightness of his knock on Savannah’s door surprised her, as did the gentle voice that matched it.
“Savannah?” Dan said. “You need to get up. We’re completely out of formula. You need to go get some.”
After a short pause, Savannah’s groggy voice replied, “OK. I’m up. OK”
Dan remained at her door until he heard a general stirring of activity, then said, “Try to hurry up. Dylan’s already hungry.”
Dan rejoined Madeline in the sun room, where Dylan had drifted into a light snooze on her shoulder. “Nicely done,” she said. “You handled that well.”
“I think we would have made really good parents,” Dan said.
“To a 15-year-old unwed mother? Great.”
“No. You know that’s not what I meant. You make all of this look so…appealing. Like no other choices or other kinds of lives make sense to even consider,” he said.
A highly disheveled Savannah appeared in the doorway, joined at the hip to a skinny wraith of a boy who brought to mind the word “wan” despite his Hispanic heritage.
“I guess we’ll have to walk over to the Walgreen’s to get some,” Savannah said.
“OK. He’s fallen asleep. He’s fine for now,” Madeline said.
“I mean, Marie usually takes me to that place where I can get the formula for free, but there’s no way to get there cause she’s at work, right?” Savannah offered.
“Right,” said Dan, before Madeline could answer.
“So I guess we’ll walk over to the Walgreen’s.”
“So…I need to borrow the money for it,” Savannah said.
“You need to borrow the money?”
“Don’t worry; Marie will pay you back as soon as she gets home. It’s usually, like, $25 for a container. Can you believe it’s so expensive? God, I’m SO glad we get it free.”
“I’m not worried,” Madeline said. “Let me rephrase. I’m not worried about getting paid back by Marie.”
Dan reached into his pants pocket. “I’ve got a 20 right here. Do you have the rest, Savannah? Five bucks or so?”
“Um, no, well, I can count up my change,” Savannah said. “I might have it.”
“Never mind counting change. You can get the rest out of my wallet,” Madeline said.
“OK. Thanks,” Savannah said. “Hey MadMad, can I borrow your jacket? Again?” She giggled.
“So I guess you want us to watch Dylan while you two go off to the store,” Dan said.
“Oh. Right. No, we can take him.” Savannah looked over at the silent, sunken waif at her side.
“Except I think he barfed all over the carrier. I think I need to wash it.”
“No reason to wake a hungry baby to take him outside in a barf-covered carrier. If you guys hurry, I’ll have enough time to get to work,” Madeline said. “So hurry.”
With a general kerfuffle and Savannah making approximately ten times the number of movements as The Wraith, the front door closed behind them. Dylan moved his head and frowned slightly in his sleep.
“Talkative chap, isn’t he?” Dan said.
“Jose? Yeah. He’s grown about a foot and is otherwise unrecognizable from the kid I met a couple of years ago; but I don’t remember him saying a single word back then either. He just sort of followed Savannah from room to room. She ate it up at first, but then she got more and more annoyed and ending up treating him pretty much like shit – calling and texting other guys the whole time he was around – until he vanished. It was an interesting ‘relationship.’”
“Ah. Well, it makes sense then that they’ve hooked up again,” Dan said.
The two of them chuckled softly. “It’s kind of not funny,” Madeline said.
“It’s not funny at all,” Dan said. “That’s why we’re laughing.”
“That was when you taught me about sex, Marie, remember?”
That’s what emerged from Savannah’s mouth just as Madeline entered the room. Savannah laughed a hearty, open-mouthed laugh. Her great round belly bounced up and down, requiring her to arrange it. “We were just talking about that time Marie told me all about SEX. Don’t you remember, Marie?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. This is nonsense,” Marie countered.
“No. It’s true. We’d been waiting for Mom for so long, don’t you remember? It was, like, hours and hours,” Savannah said.
“Waiting for her where?” Madeline asked.
“At the casino,” Marie said.
“What do you mean?” Madeline asked.
“Well, wait, let’s get back to the story here,” Savannah said. “I can’t even believe you don’t remember this, Marie. We were sitting on the curb, cause we’d already played in the car and taken turns playing taxi driver, and then you went all through your purse trying to find all the little crayon stubs, and you let me draw pictures on all the little scraps of paper you picked off the floor of the car and from the glove box, and you made a story up about every picture, and still we were waiting. So we went outside and sat on the curb, and you had me drawing pictures using just my toes in the dirt, and you’d guess what they were. And you were being silly and making me laugh, guessing that the pictures were crazy things like a bunch of angels gathered around a brand new baby elelphant singing it lullabies so it could sleep through the roars of the angry lions. I mean, I drew something like a circle, and that’s what you’d guess.”
“Angels singing to a baby elephant?” Madeline arched her brow.
“Whatever. Shut up.” Savannah said.
“We’d been waiting a really, really long time. I just remember being so sleepy. It was dark already. And then I said: ‘Marie, this girl in my school said her older sister is gonna have a baby. And my friend asked her sister where the baby came from, and her sister said that her husband stuck his wee-wee inside of her and went pee pee, and that’s where the baby came from. And I said, is that true, Marie? Is that where babies come from? Is that where I came from?’ And you said, I swear to God you said: ‘Well, that’s close enough.’” Savannah wrinkled up her nose and laughed loud.
“Nonsense,” Marie said. “Never happened.”
“Oh my God, you’re the worst,” Savannah said, picking up the sofa pillow and tossing it at her sister. Both of them burst into unfettered laughter.
“That’s what I thought for years, Marie. Years!”
“You were a little kid! What was I supposed to say?” Marie said.
“Like, how old?” Madeline asked.
“I don’t know.” Marie considered. “Probably 4 or so by then. This kind of went on for a long time.”
“This what went on for a long time?” Madeline asked.
“We’d all be out running errands, or getting food, or whatever, and my mother would just sort of…drive over to the casino and say that she’d be right back. And she’d leave us there. In the car.”
Marie’s tone was strangely untroubled, but her voice became softer. She shrugged one shoulder. “She was basically bringing me along to watch after Savannah. Savannah was pretty little when this started.”
“Little…like…?” Madeline asked.
“Oh, one and a half? At least one,” Marie said.
“So you were taking care of a baby inside of a car in the parking lot of a casino. By yourself,”
“Uh-huh,” said Marie.
“It was fun!” Savannah said. “Marie made it really fun.”
“How long would she be gone? In the casino?” Madeline asked.
“Sometimes not very long. You know, an hour. Sometimes…pretty long. That time Savannah’s remembering is probably the longest. I think my mom drove us there right after lunch. It was dark when we left.”
Savannah laughed. “It’s all your fault, Marie,” she pointed to her enormous belly. “You ruined me with that story.”
The expression “herding cats” does not even begin to cover the travesty of attempting to gather six adults (well, five adults and a 15-year-old mother of a newborn) into one room for long enough to reach in and pull out painstakingly-chosen treasures from Madeline’s hand-knit Christmas stockings.
Pots of coffee were brewed and drained, favorite Christmas CD’s from long years past rang out on the stereo one after another – and still, no more than four people at a time managed to amass in the general vicinity of the tree, the stockings, the waiting slew of piled gifts.
The only person in unfettered good spirits was, as usual, baby Dylan. As a one-month-old newbie who had every reason to express general difficulty in his adjustment to the whole world outside of a warm, dark, wholly embracing womb, he rarely did. The bright lights, noise and general chaos that he had been born into seemed A-OK to him. Madeline regularly said to Savannah: “He’s not a real baby, you know.” Savannah of course had nothing to compare him to. She had no idea that sleepless nights were the norm, not in infant who nestled into his mother’s ample chest and snoozed the night away.
Kate planted herself in the living room, turned off the Mormon Tabernacle Choir mid carol, and opened her violin case. “John,” she shot over her shoulder, “let’s play until everyone’s here.”
“I was just—” John said.
“Let’s play.” Kate’s breathing was faster than usual.
John wandered back and forth in the room, as if trying to remember what her words meant.
“Oh, great!” Madeline said, rushing into the room and plopping down on the sofa. “Best idea ever. More impromptu carols!” She knit her brow and continued, “Hey, anybody seen Dan? What the heck is he doing?”
“What the fuck is anybody doing,” Kate said. “Seriously, what the fuck is everybody doing.”
“DAN,” Madeline called out. “DAN!”
A door on the second floor opened. “Yeah?” Dan said.
“Hey, can you come down here?” Madeline asked.
Footfalls on the staircase, Dan standing on the landing, uncommitted to the remaining six stairs and exhibiting slight annoyed bewilderment.
“Whatcha doing up there?” Madeline inquired.
Dan shrugged. “Well, come down and sit with me. Listen to the kids with me. Come on,” Madeline chirped.
Dan padded down the remaining steps and took his place beside Madeline. “Here? You want me here? Like this?”
“What’s up with you?” Madeline asked.
“Nothing. Here I am.”
“Oh my God,” said Kate. We actually have four people here. All we need is Marie and Savannah.”
“I’m pretty sure Marie’s in the basement. On the phone or texting someone. Savannah’s upstairs. Also on the phone.”
“Let me know the next time and place that my services are required,” Dan said, standing.
“No no no no!” Madeline said. “Stay here! I’m gonna see if I can rally the troops.”
“I’m around. Once the troops get rallied, let me know,” Dan countered.
“Hey! Come on! This is fun!” Madeline said.
“Do you know the New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast?” Dan asked.
“Yeah…” said Madeline.
“Cartoon title: Pollyanna in Hell. Cartoon caption: ‘No more down jackets forever!!!’ ”
Madeline made an excellent attempt to demonstrate the expression “shoot daggers” with a glance, but Dan pre-emptively did not allow for eye contact as he left the room.
Cartoon excerpt: Roz Chast, originally published in The New Yorker
In the middle of the night, Kate had awakened from a sound slumber, eyes wide, face to face with the hairline crack that ran along her west wall. “Shit damn,” she thought to herself. She threw her mountain of winter covers aside and tiptoed down the stairs.
On Christmas morning, Kate found her mother in the kitchen, babysitting the coffee pot as it burbled away.
“Mama! Merry Christmas!” She threw her arms around Madeline and simultaneously said: “Don’t even think about touching that pot until it’s all done.”
“Oh for god’s sake, I do this every morning! Every morning I pour myself a cup. That’s why there is such a thing as stop-and-pour. So we don’t have to wait! So civilization can march forward!”
“It will totally ruin the rest of the pot. No touch.”
“On this of all days! It’s Christmas. Mama needs her coffee!”
Kate decided it was easier to simply place herself between her mother and the brewing pot.
“You’re a terrible human being,” Madeline said.
“Stockings first? Same as ever? Then breakfast?”
“Of course,” Madeline replied. “Same as ever. Oh, no!! Shit!!!!! I didn’t even think about a stocking for Savannah. Didn’t even enter my head! Assuming she comes out of her room. At all.”
“Of course Savannah has a stocking,” Kate said. “Santa would never forget Savannah.”
“Oh my God,” Madeline said. “Oh my god.”
“I forgot, too. Until the middle of the night.”
“What did you do?” her mother asked.
“Go look,” Kate said, while continuing: “I thought I was going to have to use one of those nasty ones you’ve kept all these years from your childhood – even though that creepy angel keeps losing more and more parts of her body like some pathetic leper – but anyway, there was a pretty new one in the box, too. Do you even remember why we got that one? I had to empty out all of the stockings, and rifle through everything, and take a little bit from everybody else’s stocking. Even my own. Sorry. Most of the stuff, though, I had to take from your stocking. Things I got for you. I think it will be OK. It’s not totally even, but I think it’ll be OK.”
“Oh my God, Kate, that’s amazing. You’re amazing.” Madeline teared up and hurtled towards Kate with outstretched arms, intending an enormous hug. But Kate took a step backwards.
“Not that I expect it will make any difference. But I thought I would try. I thought somebody should at least try.”
Hours later, when the herding of cats had at long last been accomplished, the group gathered to open their Christmas stockings. Looking around the stocking circle, Madeline began to feel as if she were in some sort of Twilight Zone improv class, a twisted parallel universe where each person had been given an exaggerated character trait that they’d been instructed to act out, and to hang onto that one trait for dear life, no matter what anyone else may be doing.
Savannah: I WILL sulk, pout, sigh, disappear at regular intervals, and broadcast dark depair.
Marie: I WILL stick with Savannah. This is blood. If she’s in despair, I’m in despair. Don’t fuck with me.
John: I WILL remain completely oblivious to anything out of the ordinary going on here. Completely. Oblivious.
Kate: I WILL HAVE A GOOD CHRISTMAS. I WILL. I WILL. I WILL.
Dan: I WILL act as if every single thing this family has created as part of their Christmas tradition is without question the most fucked up, lame assed, terrifyingly inauthentic piece of dysfunctional lunacy that I have ever witnessed in my life.
Madeline: I WILL do everything humanly possible to make sure that every one of these people is happy, happy, happy. I can do it! I can!
Madeline watched two squirrels chasing one another across the top of the fence in her yard. They knew in their squirrel way that winter was coming, and what would have been playful frolicking a month or so ago had turned to ferocious rivalry over the last seeds and acorns that could mean the difference between a thick padding of pudge to burn for a whole long winter, or a skimpy layer of fat, and a squirrel that was cold, shivering and desperate long before the frozen world melted away.
She remembered the day when she had been sitting in the same spot, looking out the same window, at the exact moment when a squirrel lost its balance and dropped like a shot from the branch. “Arrogant acrobatic bastard,” she said aloud. She would have expected a frantic scrambling of legs and claws and limbs as the squirrel plummeted, but it immediately assumed the spread-eagle position of a sky diver in free fall; and in that same position it landed with an abrupt stop, right on top of the fence, where it lay panting and dazed.
“Oh for god’s sake, squirrel bastard, are you really gonna do this? Are you really gonna make me worry about you?”
All afternoon, the squirrel lay atop the fence, all spread out, the ends of its limbs dangling. Madeline checked every hour or so. The squirrel seemed to be panting less, she thought; of course, maybe that meant that he was dying.
Just as the sun sunk low enough to cast the juicy, sumptuous golden glow she loved so much, the squirrel stood up on all four legs and walked the length of the entire fence as if nothing in the world had ever happened. When he reached the end, he scampered down and hopped across the yard and back up the tree.
The whole thing was so utterly bizarre that Madeline wondered for a second if it really happened. She would have been the only person, among the billions inhabiting the earth, to see it. It was an event, a moment, that belonged to her and her alone. But really, it was the same with everything, right? She was the only one who saw from behind her own eyes. Every one of the times she had looked out the windows of this room, every daring squirrel, blowing branch, falling leaf, every play of light and shadow, every every every thing was a vision, a moment of her life, that was hers.
“Hey MadMad,” Savannah called from the kitchen, “how much pain do you think a baby really feels? Like if I wanted to get him a tattoo, for instance? I mean, they cut the ends of their penises off, right?”
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.
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!