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

Stories of My Mother: The End

17832-1367863315-WilliamWegman

My mother loved to tell the story of when I was sick with the chicken pox. I came downstairs in my pajamas, miserable with pain and itch, wretched with a high fever. I stood in the kitchen and cried.

Our beloved family dog Heidi had recently birthed a litter or eight tiny, squiggling black puppies. My father had built her a small pen in our basement, and filled it with old blankets, so she would have a place to birth and raise her pups.

When she heard my sobs, she left her pups in their basement pen and came up to see the situation for herself. My mother never stopped delighting in telling how Heidi nuzzled into me and began giving me gentle but insistent pushes towards the basement staircase. She was trying to herd me down the stairs, so I could join the rest of the babies that needed her.

wegman-artware-1

Heidi did love me best of our family of four, but I thought it was mighty generous of my mother to say so, and to delight in it, considering that she had done the lion’s share of the hard work of housebreaking, and training, and feeding and slogging the big dog inside and outside since the day we had brought her home. I was three years old then, and therefore instantly and deeply in love. I held the sleeping puppy for hours. I examined every square inch of her as she grew, so I would know her dog body as well as I could. Til the very end of her life, whenever I would sit on the floor in front of a heating vent in order to shake off winter’s bitter chill, she would lie down next to me, resting her head in my lap. I spread her ears out across my thigh and stroked them, and reveling in their unequaled softness.

I have no memory of the chicken pox incident myself, but I heard it so many times growing up that I have formed a clear picture of it – Heidi’s expression of alertness and concern, my flannel pajamas with faded yellow flowers all over them, so small on me that my 5-year-old belly showed in the space between the tops and the bottoms. My only memory of the chicken pox is watching my mother pour nearly a full box of cornstarch into a steaming hot bath and telling me that it would help with the terrible itching. It didn’t. She told me that I had an unusually bad case. In a state of scientific wonder, she decided to count the pox on my face one day, but she stopped just past the bridge of my nose, when she had already reached 100.

I was past the worst of it. The pox were scabbing over, and though I was still sick, I felt so much better than I had that I was filled with a kind of giddy exhilartion when I woke up that morning. I bound into the kitchen and told my mother that I was going to the basement to play with the puppies. She turned from the kitchen sink to face me, and told me that one of the puppies had died during the night. “Why,” I asked.

“You never know about these things,” my mother replied. “So many things can be wrong that we can’t even see.”

“Where is the puppy?” I wanted to know.

“It’s gone,” she said.

“Gone where?” I wanted to know.

She didn’t answer.

“Was it a boy, or a girl?”

“It was a boy.”

The next morning, I woke up a little earlier than usual. My mother stood in the kitchen, wrapping a tiny, still black thing in a sheet of newspaper.

“You’re up early,” she said. “Another puppy died last night.”

“I want to see it.”

She unwrapped a corner of the newspaper, and I could see the fat, adorable-looking puppy that I had held and played with the day before. It was completely limp, like a rag doll. But otherwise – perfect. “How do you know it’s dead?”

“Because I know,” my mother said.

William-Wegman-650x650

Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.

Every night, another puppy died. My mother said that Weimaraners were special dogs. A highly pure German breed. We had intended to breed Heidi with a carefully selected male, but she had gotten knocked up in the back yard before my parents were sure that she was in heat. My mother explained that often times, when Weimaraners bred with other breeds of dogs, the puppies were not viable. It was a new word. Viable.

One puppy remained. A male. Each morning I woke up, and he was still alive. I studied him, trying to figure out what possible magic he possessed that allowed him to live. My parents found a young man who wanted to adopt him. My mother told me that he was going to come to our house in a couple of days and take the one remaining puppy to grow up and live with him.

“Are you sure he’ll be able to stay alive,” I asked. “Are you sure he’s viable?”

“I’m sure,” she said.

Now that I know the truth, I sometimes try to picture it. I wonder how my mother made her decisions about which one she would choose. I picture her carrying a wriggling puppy in her two hands, up the basement stairs and into our darkened kitchen. I see her plugging the drain, and running a sinkful of water. Or did she run the water in advance, I wonder. Warm, or cool. What goes through your mind when you are cradling new life in your hands, feeling that life drain away, watching for those last tiny bubbles of air to rise to the surface.

wegman

Photos: William Wegman

Tales from the Gym, #1

A man trains at the Kachalka outdoor gym on the banks of river Dniper in Kiev

The day that I cancelled my gym membership – a good 15 years ago – was one of the most joyous days of my life. My daughter insists that every single time she goes to a gym – any gym in any city – she walks through the front door and has an immediate sense that something really, really good is going to happen. I love my daughter passionately; but this strikes me as very nearly psychotic.

My ex-husband and I joined our local gym towing along an infant. We dutifully went three times a week, doing a prescribed combination of strength training and cardio. Now that I am facing down my 60th birthday later this year, this strikes me as hilarious and disheartening. A high point of each week is my Sunday, wherein I putatively help my kids out by “babysitting” my adored foster grandson, and thereby get a strong dose of the miraculous wonder that comprises the world of a two-year-old. However, going out of my way to locate any additional exercise on these days is a preposterous idea. Taking care of him for a six-hour stretch is my workout, and I spend much of the day hoping I will have enough remaining strength to carry him up the long flight of stairs that ends my stint. In fact, when I first began taking care of him, I came home early Sunday evening, sat in my favorite chair with my Sunday paper, and was absolutely sure that I was dying. Terminally ill. A goner. There could be no other possible explanation for the level of my exhaustion, the depth of which was awesome and terrifying. Must. Get. Food. Important. To. Brush. Teeth.

Through sheer force of will I remained nearly-awake until 9:00.

The thought of doing anything on Sunday evening – even though I was invariably back home no later than six o’clock – was entirely out of the question. And to think there was a time when I did this all day long, every day, and sought out MORE exercise!?

For the ensuing 15 years since I gleefully snipped my old gym membership card into little teeny pieces, I have been a runner, of sorts. But a vast array of medical appointments involving all kids of thumping noises, radioactive dyes, extraordinarily unnatural body positions, little cameras being put in little orifices – you get the idea – have resulted in me having a high degree of technology to verify that I am in excellent health. Except for one thing: a significant amount of “wear and tear” degeneration, strange bone growth, and good old-fashioned arthritis, that sprawls through my back and hips.

My running days are over.

Two weeks ago, I joined a gym. Watch for the stories to prove it.

Funny-Gym-and-Workout-05

Stories of My Mother, #5

pink

Everything changed the year that I was 13, and before my 14th birthday I had tossed out my last jar of Dippity-Do, deep-sixed my hair curlers, and thrown away a large number of white and pink-white and nearly-white tubes of frosted lipstick. Even though I was slightly late to the party, I considered myself A Hippie, and pared my wardrobe down to one pair of jeans that were long enough to abrade the bottoms in an artful fashion, a pair of moccasins that I wore in all weather conditions, 4 identical mock turtleneck sweaters in different colors for winter, and four men’s T-shirts for summer.

Suddenly everyone who had been desperately trying to get their hair to hold a curl was straightening it! I grew my hair to my waist and beamed when people asked me regularly if I ironed it to get it so straight! I was a Natural Woman. I told my mother she had given me her last Toni home permanent, thank you very much, and gathered up my bras for a ritual burning. My mother was actually quite accepting of the changes in My Look, never getting especially excited when I came home with frozen feet from wearing moccasins in mid-winter, or put the same pair of jeans in the laundry time after time (though jeans were not meant to look clean at this time – we doodled on them with ink pens, and if we didn’t smoke ourselves, we co-opted friends’ cigarettes any chance we got, so we could grind the ashes into our jeans to create a look that was just so.)

maidenform

My mother drew the line at the bra thing, however. She commenced in giving me anatomical lectures about the Cooper’s ligament, and how I was putting myself and my 14-year-old breasts in danger of developing a ghastly condition known as “Cooper’s Droop,” due to my poor, unsupported B-size breasts being unable to support their own massive weight, the ligaments stretching under the immense strain, and ending up with – Cooper’s Droop. Her own mother had suffered this fate, she told me. Being a fashion victim of the 1920’s, the “flapper era” when women’s ideal appearance was flat-chested, my grandmother had bound up her ample bosom, resulting in – Cooper’s Droop. My mother alleged that things degenerated to the point where my grandmother had to lift her breasts out of the way in order to fasten her belt. My mother attempted to horrify me even further by saying that at least it was easier for grandmother to see the breast lumps she kept developing.

I was unfazed. Cooper’s Droop be damned. My girls were set free.

bra

Stories of My Mother, #3

Georgia_O'Keeffe

Many years ago I worked with a Chicago theatre ensemble. As ensembles are wont to do, we made every effort to cast our play productions from within our own pool of ten or so actors. An enormous pool of talent existed there, no question; but some of the corp were definitely more versatile in their range than others. None was more versatile, even chameleon-like, than one of our actresses – Lindsay.

When she walked in off the street, with her white-blonde hair, pale blue eyes and inevitable cigarette, Lindsay possessed the demeanor of someone whose strong preference was to remain unnoticed. She offered her greeting, her authentic questions about my own health and well being; then took her seat and immediately seemed to recede, as if she were striving to become one with the chair that held her.

Lindsay could use this trait to amazing advantage on the stage, in roles where she could appear, no be, so worn, and weary, and shrivelled up into some deep phantom of a former self, that her 20-some years seemed completely impossible. On the other hand, Lindsay could walk onto the stage and take your breath completely away. She was radiant, stunning, utterly beautiful.

My mother had this – whatever this is – that comes from some well deep within, and is able convince anyone who looks upon you that you are, in every way, beautiful.

My mother never worked at being beautiful, and in fact, would have considered doing so a shocking waste of time and a bewilderingly superficial focus. She came of age in the late 1930’s and early 40’s, when the makeup regimen of a serious, athletic college girl consisted of dabbing a puff of compact powder on both sides of one’s nose – exactly twice – and applying a good coat of lipstick.

My mother took very little time to get ready each morning. A couple of fast brushes through her hair, dab dab on her nose, a quick and artfully drawn mouth, a glance at both sides of her face. But like Lindsay preparing for the stage, by the time she finished this simple routine, a beautiful woman stared back at her in the mirror.

e512db24939564e9efd5405f8bde5bec

GeorgiaAlfredStieglitz

okkefe

Photos of Georgia O’Keefe by Alfred Stieglitz

In memory of Lindsay

Stories of My Mother, #2

hero-winogrand

 

My mother thought of herself as a beautiful woman. I’m not sure how I knew this, but I was sure of it: she went through each day of her life with the confident certainty that her beauty was a given. She never spoke of this, and referred to it only once that I can remember. When I was a mid-range adolescent, maybe 14 or 15, and boys had begun to sniff and circle around our house, my mother said one day, out of the blue: “You definitely have the better body, but I believe that I have the prettier face.”

Even then, in my dewy youth, I thought: what a weird ass thing to say.

winogrand

winogrand_garry_253_1984

photos by Garry Winogrand, from his book “Women Are Beautiful”

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.”

20196.168791

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.

o-MENTAL-ILLNESS-PHOTOGRAPHY-facebook

 

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.”

EscherRindLR

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

The Writing Process Blog Tour

 

images the-writer2

What am I working on?

I’d say that I’m not quite half way into my third novel, which tells the trials that unfold in extended family over the course of a few short months. It’s told from the perspective of the house itself, an idea I must credit to my friend Mary, who threw it out off-handedly over a glass of wine one night, and the idea stuck. The structure is modeled very loosely on Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town.” In this case the house takes on the role of narrator in much the same way as the Stage Manager does in the play – sometimes existing within the events and possessing deep feeling for them, and other times standing outside of the action and providing perspective, or bringing in back stories.

sign

 

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Gosh, I guess I don’t really have any idea! My “genre” is literary fiction, I suppose, which falls way down on the list of what most people are writing these days. I have been told often that I am a “voice” writer, in that my writing centers on the distinct — and I hope strong and compelling — voice of the narrator. I do think I’m able to generate a narrative “drive” through the voice, which readers tell me compels the story forward. Plot becomes secondary to the voice, which can become a rather pesky, serious problem at times. Sometimes my narrator has a great deal to say about one thing or another, and loses sight of “story.”

Also, I started out writing poetry, and pursued this for many years initially (despite being Truly Bad). However, it remains a hallmark of my writing that I always endeavor to distill complex characters and situations into an absolute minimum number of words. I read every sentence over and over, and read each one aloud, for the first draft. I’ve been told this is highly irregular and ill-advised, but it’s what works for me.

Leonid_Pasternak_001

Why do I write what I do?

I think most writers would answer this the same way, wouldn’t they? Because I have to. Writing is truly a solitary, gruelingly difficult, soul-wrenching way to pass the time. The reason I do it is because either an idea, or a character, or both, consumes me in a way that I simply must let that character have his/her due. At its best, I feel as if I am “channeling” a character – s/he has possessed me and their story pours out through my fingers. Doesn’t actually make the process of writing itself any easier, but at this point it feels necessary. That feeling helps counterbalance all of the other times that I feel like “What the heck am I doing? Where did I ever get the idea that I have anything whatsoever to say?” But, ah, those writing moments when I feel like I have nailed it – when I have managed to say precisely what I wanted to say – there is no greater feeling of having done something real and good here on Earth.

firefly-picture-in-jar

How does your writing process work?

Well, for one thing – slowly. It makes me miserable to hear about writers who crank out first drafts in a couple of months. It’s a laborious process to reach an economy of words!
I’ve experimented with plotting things out – in a weird past incarnation of myself I even had a box of index cards with character descriptions and scene ideas and plot developments. This method works for tons of writers, and god love them, I say. But it doesn’t work for me. I got very stuck on the ending of my second novel, and I swore I would not sit in front of a keyboard again with any thought of writing a novel-length work without having a fully-developed, carefully-constructed plot. But hey, the best laid plans and all that. I’m shooting from the hip once again, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

firefly-in-the-hand

**************
I didn’t even know what a “blog tour”  was when writer (and indefatigable supporter of fellow authors) Michael Fedison asked if I would do this post, and thereby take part in the tour.  Thanks to Mike for inviting me to join the fun. And now, it’s time for me to pass the baton to next Monday’s bloggers ! It is my pleasure to introduce  authors Robert Villarreal,  anjanapdeep (whose blog is “The Mental Picture), and Sarah Potter (SarahPotterWrites).   Please watch for their posts on the 30th, and check out their work!