“Rice Pudding,” new from the novel “Pushing the River”


“Oh, my God! Look what Marie got! This is my favorite!! MadMad, Look!” Savannah stood back from the refrigerator and held something out in her hand.

“What the heck is that?” Madeline said.

“What is that? That is rice pudding! Rice pudding!!”

Savannah held out a little plastic cup, the kind that she used to put in John and Kate’s lunch boxes, filled with applesauce. Savannah peeled off the silver top and dipped her finger in the lumpy ivory goo. “Oh, my God, that is good. You gotta try it. Go ahead! Dip your finger!”

“Um, no thanks, I don’t really like rice pudding. Never have.”

“Ah, are you sure? This stuff is awesome!”

The truth was: Madeline loved rice pudding.

When she and her husband first moved into the house, and John was a baby, they loved going to a neighborhood diner run by a Greek family that prided itself on its homemade rice pudding. Every time they came through the door, the middle-aged, mustached Greek owner with the sad eyes called out from the far side of the main dining room, “Johhhhhhhhhhhhhhh-Neeeeeeeeeeeeeee” in a booming and festive voice, as if the party could now begin. He snapped his fingers for someone to bring a high chair for John, and reached into the pocket of his permanent press slacks for a balloon. While Madeline and Dick settled John into the high chair and situated themselves in the booth, the owner blew the balloon into a long thin tube, and with a few deft twists and turns, produced a balloon creature of shocking complexity – to John’s enormous delight. He placed the creation on the tray of John’s high chair with a ceremonious flourish and vanished to the nether regions of his domain.

balloon crab

John had been a breeze to take to restaurants, because his young appetite was, quite frankly, enormous. He was content to sit and eat for as long as the adults cared to stay, so Madeline and Dick tackled their Big Food, as they called it, with leisurely relish. There was no question that rice pudding would finish the meal, and a glorious finish it was.

They groaned in satisfaction the entire walk home, doing their best to navigate John’s stroller with one hand so they could clasp their own hands fast together.

Savannah said, “Shit girl, you’re missing it. I’m telling you, this is the best stuff ever. Last chance before I finish it off.”

Savannah again held out the little plastic cup. “Thanks, sweet pea. You finish it. I really don’t like rice pudding,” Madeline said.

Savannah’s smile was hugely content, the crown atop her immense belly. Madeline wobbled, struggled in a way that was not visible, in order to remain standing. I wish I wish I wish I could believe this. I wish I could believe that there is some possible happy ending here. That this baby in front of me can somehow take care of a baby. That there will be balloon animal rice pudding moments in their lives.


Top: Jeff Koons

“Coffee Malfunction,” new from the novel “Pushing the River”


Within seconds of Marie’s butt hitting the dining room chair, Dan said, “The coffee’s probably near ready. Anybody else?”

“Seriously?” Kate said. “We just sat down. Finally! We finally all sat down.”

“Be right back,” Dan said.

Sure enough, the cantankerous coffee pot chose that exact moment to erupt. Rivulets of grainy blackish brew ran in multiple directions across the kitchen countertops, into the crack between the counter and the stove, down the cabinets and across the floor.

“Shit,” said Dan. “Total explosion.”

“You’re fucking kidding me,” Madeline said, leaping to her feet. “I’m coming.”

“Mom, Please stay here. Please.” The barely-contained flood of tears soaked Kate’s voice.


“No, she’s right,” Dan said. “I got this.” Though he continued to stand motionless, holding a dish towel and staring blankly at the outpouring before him.

“Dan, can you come back in here, too? Please can you come in here? Can we all just sit here, together, at the breakfast table for a few minutes?” Kate implored.

Dan did not respond, and Kate turned to her mother, “Can you ask him? Can you please get him to just come sit down?”

Without a second’s hesitation or a thought in her mind, Madeline turned in her chair and faced into the kitchen. “Dan. Please. I’ll clean it up later. Just leave it. Please come sit down.”

The house held its breath. Dan slowly put the towel on the kitchen counter. Slowly he walked the few steps into the dining room, pulled out a chair, and sat at the head of the table, folding his hands in his lap. No one moved.

Kate picked up her fork to resume her Christmas breakfast, and with that, Dan shoved himself back in his chair and spit in a low, tightly-coiled whisper: “Do you feel better now, Kate? Do you feel better now that you’ve ordered everyone around and gotten exactly what you wanted? Even though it’s fucking crazy? It’s fucking crazy that there’s coffee spilling all over the kitchen, but you got what you wanted.”

Kate exploded into tears, exploded out of her chair, exploded from the room at a gallop, her mother a hair’s breath of explosion behind her, reaching out her arms and calling her daughter’s name.

The house split in two. In one part, two women raced through the living room and tore up the stairway in a rumpus of noise and limbs and sobs and entreaties. In the other part, three people sat in motionless silence, their eyes locked to their laps.


photos by Harry Callahan of his wife Eleanor

“My Turn to Talk,” new from the novel “Pushing the River”


The future is a giant fucking black hole.

Everybody keeps asking me, all the fucking time they keep asking me: “what am I gonna do when the baby’s born? What am I gonna do when the baby’s born?” Fuck should I know what I’m gonna do. Well, I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do. Like this is fucking rocket science or something.

I’m gonna take care of a baby. That’s what I’m gonna do.

I hate fucking people sometimes, like all people, like I really mean it, I really do.

I’m gonna be a good fucking mother, too. I know I am. A great mother.

They’re gonna put that baby in my arms, and I’m gonna love him and love him and love him. I’m gonna kiss his little head, and play with his toes, and rock him, and cuddle him, and whisper in his little tiny ears. I’m gonna love him up real good. All the time I’m gonna love him up.

And he’s gonna love me. He’s gonna love me like there’s no tomorrow, all the time, forever. Because I’m his mommy. I’m his fucking mommy. He’ll love me. He’ll never leave me. Because he has to. Because I’m his mommy.

Fuck the future. I’m gonna have someone who loves me.


art by Jean-Michel Basquiat

“Stocking Circle,” new excerpt from the novel “Pushing the River”


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.


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!


photos by Mary Ellen Mark

“Cozy, Cozy” new except from the novel “Pushing the River”


Madeline glanced over at Savannah’s face and thought: “it’s slumped. Her very face is slumped, not just her body. I did not know such a thing was possible.” Not only that, but she managed to radiate jaw-clenched, seething malcontent like waves carrying forth from a gigantic ocean liner. It was impossible to be in the room, which was quite large, and not know the intense level of her well-broadcast suffering.

Madeline’s phone rang in the other room. When she saw the name on her caller ID, she walked to the back of the house to answer. “Hi,” she said.

“Don’t tell anyone that it’s me. Please. Please, Maddie.” Billie’s voice was so soft, so nearly not there at all.

“What’s going on, Billie? How are you?”

Billie cried quietly on the other end of the line for quite a while. “I am so sorry, Maddie. So so sorry. I’ve let everybody down. Again. I’ve let everybody down again.”

“Everybody wants you here,” was Madeline’s first lie. “But everybody understands,” was her second.

Billie’s gentle crying turned to great, racking sobs; she audibly snorted the torrent of liquid that poured from her nose. “I just can’t do it. I can’t. I can’t I can’t I can’t.”

“Are you OK, Billie? Are you someplace safe?”

“I can’t I can’t I can’t. I’m so so sorry.”

“Your sister is worried about you. Can you call her? Or text her? Can you text Savannah? Wish her a good Christmas? Can you think about doing that? Try to do it before the end of the day tomorrow. Just think about it. Please just think about it, OK?”

“Don’t tell anyone I called,” Billie said, and abruptly hung up.


Madeline remained in the back room, weighing the pros and cons of keeping the call to herself. Talk about your lose-lose, she thought. Marie counted on knowing every single thing, all the time, even when the information made her infinitely more miserable.

Just then, Marie stealthed into the room and said to Madeline, “Who was that? Was that my mother?”

“I’m not sure,” Madeline replied. “Depends on: what’s the right answer to that question?”

“God damn it!” Marie said. “What did she say?”

“Not much. She doesn’t sound good. I think it’s a safe bet that we won’t be seeing her. I tried to get her to think about talking to her sister, and to Savannah.”

“Where is she? What else did she say?”

“She didn’t say much, Marie. Mostly she cried. And repeatedly apologized. Repeatedly.”

The two women looked at one another across the dark expanse of the room, saying nothing. Marie stealthed back out, leaving Madeline to gaze out at the back yard, the fat colored lights ablaze in the neighbor’s tall pine.

Right after Madeline returned to the living room and took her seat on the couch, the front door opened, and Dan came in. “Fuck, I should have known,” Madeline thought. She knew well by then that any time Dan spent with any piece of his family entailed a heavy amount of drinking on his part – plenty in their presence to manage the togetherness, and even more in the car as he drove to his next destination. A particularly tough family gathering could end up being a three-to-five-cans-in-the-car adventure. Not until he walked through the door did Madeline realize it: she had held out the hope that Christmas Eve would be different, that maybe there would be warmth and traditions and laughter and such that would have him sipping daintily at a homemade toddy instead of slugging back brew after brew.

Dan still perplexed her as a drunk. Large amounts of alcohol seemed to render him both woozy and intense. There was a coiled-snake vibe, ready at any second to strike, hard, unless he happened to slip into a peaceful stupor instead. He plopped onto the couch next to her, but sat at the very edge, so he needed to turn his head to see her. “Wow,” he said. “Look at this cozy family scene.”

“Yep,” Madeline said. “It is.” It was both a command and a plea.

“Cozy, cozy.”


center photo of F. Scott Fitzgerald and family

“Windows,” in memory of August 26, 2014, and a new except from “Pushing the River”


You have no idea, none at all, which of the most simple, everyday, completely unremarkable moments might be one that gets emblazoned in your mind for the rest of time. A snapshot of an instant, a place in your life that remains in exceptional, vivid detail – no blurring around the edges of a picture that never fades.

The day is sultry hot, a dazzling sun in the July sky. Madeline stands at the edge of an empty room, the one they have decided will be John’s bedroom. She puts the 6-week-old baby on the built-in desk; she places a fan on one side and adjusts it so it moves from side to side, blowing on John, then turning to blow on her. John reclines in the seat that they take everywhere, the one that bounces with his slightest movement.

Two of the windows are open. They are old and have the original latches on them, covered by a hundred years’ worth of coats of paint. Madeline and Dick immediately took down the cheap, yellowed window shades that had been crumbling on all six of the room’s windows. They had laughed themselves sick when they took up the area rug, surprised that it had been left behind by the previous owners, only to discover the baffling reason – the owners had refinished the hardwood floor around the edges of the room, but not underneath the rug! In the absence of the shades, the amount of sun and light coming in the early afternoon takes her breath away. Since her childhood, she has not spent time in a home, on a second floor, with the tops of trees and the sky and the difference in light.


She stands at the edge of the room, looking out the windows. The fan is nearly silent as it turns from side to side. John moves his tiny bare foot and bounces now and then.

The tiny toes on John’s foot. The height of summer’s lush leaves on the trees.  The smell of fresh paint. She has no idea how clear the picture of all this will be, will remain, for the rest of her life.


paintings by Andrew Wyeth

“Nativity,” new from the novel “Pushing the River”


It was long past the time when Madeline made an entire village of gingerbread houses for each room of the first floor –gumdrop streets lined with gingerbread men and women, M & M rooftops with chocolate Santa’s waving from chimneys, forests of festooned trees, and front yards with cheery snowmen. Still, she thought to herself, this Christmas will not be a shit show. It can’t be.

Christmas Eve was always her favorite. The calendar wound relentlessly down to the shortest days, the barest amount of daytime to illuminate a bleak winter landscape; yet a day that seemed to stretch out with the bright promise of going on forever, as a day in the middle of July.

Dan had wandered off to spend some time with his family. Savannah had been holed up at her Aunt Carol’s with Dylan for several days, and Marie had left early in the morning to join them. The only ones in the house that morning were Madeline and her two children.

Madeline was finishing the frosting on the Christmas tree-shaped cakes that had been an unbreakable traditional for years. The tin foil pans had likely been designed for one-time-then-toss-them-away use. About twenty years ago. Each year, Madeline consulted her kids for Christmas Eve menu planning. Each year, she asked them what they wanted for dessert. With cheery over-enthusiasm, she mentioned a few yummy possibilities she’d been wanting to make for them. Even if the two of them were on the phone, Madeline could hear Kate’s face fall; she could see the tears that threatened at the corner of Kate’s eyes. Each year, Madeline babied the weary pans into a shape that reasonably resembled a Christmas tree, and filled the ever-increasing holes with scraps of aluminum foil so they had a reasonable chance of holding the batter.

Madeline hummed a medley of carols to herself as she swirled the finishing touches of bright green frosting. She imagined the conversation that was about to take place–

“OK, guys, the cakes are ready for you to decorate!”

“Come on, John!” Kate would say.

“Ah, you do both of them this year, Kate. I’m in the middle of trying to finish this (fill in the blank, critically-important thing).

“No no no no no no. Come ON! It’s your cake! Your CAKE!”

This would go on for a bit, John resisting, Kate getting increasingly filled with flustered affectionate pique.

In the end, John would create a masterpiece in a shockingly short amount of time. Kate would take her time, study, plan, go back to her work again and again for fine tuning. In the end, they would both be so pleased with their work that they would carve and gouge around their favorite bits of decoration until the last few bites at the bitter end.


Before Madeline could call out to signal her final flourishes, caught right in the transition between her humming of “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night,” the sound of Kate and John tuning up their instruments in the living room drifted in. “Yeah!!!” she said.

“Surprise!” shouted Kate. “Impromptu Christmas carol serenade!”

Madeline went into the living room with a knife full of frosting still in hand, holding it out first to Kate, then to John, as they plucked strings and turned pegs to tune.

“Let’s do ‘O Holy Night’ first cause it’s my favorite and Mom was just about to sing it,”

Kate said.

“OK,” John replied. “I don’t really know it, so you start, and I’ll come in and follow.”

“What do you mean you don’t know ‘O Holy Night?’ That’s, like, blasphemy or something.”

“Are we gonna have this conversation again?”

Madeline plopped onto the couch, happier than she could remember being in a long, long time.

“Oh man. This is the greatest. I suppose I should think about starting to get dinner ready. Did Marie give you an idea of what time she’d be back here?”

“Um, I’m not sure she’s gonna make it back for dinner,” John did his very best to sound casual, but his head remained turned and his eyes on the floor as he answered his mother.

“What?” It was nearly a whisper.

“I don’t think things are going real well there. At Aunt Carol’s. I don’t think anybody’s in a very good mood.”

“What’s going on, John?”

John sank into a chair and ran his fingers through his hair, still looking at some point on the floor, then at the ceiling as he combed his fingers through his hair a few more times and let out a big, audible puff of breath. “I guess I mean that Savannah’s really, really down, so Marie is really down, too. Because her sister is. You know?”

“What’s up with Savannah?”

“I guess she’s spent all this time out there with her aunt thinking about how it’s Dylan’s first Christmas and how important that is, and well, she’s gotten more and more convinced, every day, that her mother was going to be able to get it together and have Christmas with all of them together.”


“Oh shit.”

“Yeah,” said John.



“Well, what’s happening now?” Madeline asked.

“I don’t know. Savannah just really convinced herself that her mother would be there. Every day that Savannah’s been out there, every day since she left here, I guess she’s gotten her hopes more and more wound up. Now everybody has been calling Billie all day long – they started this morning – and she hasn’t picked up. They’ve texted about a hundred times, too. Anyway, finally Uncle Bob drove down there because Carol was losing her mind not knowing what was going on with her sister. So Bob gets down there and the apartment is totally dark. No lights. No nothing.”

“Perfect,” Madeline said.

“The poor guy is walking around the outside of Billie’s apartment peering in the windows and tapping on the glass. On Christmas Eve. Anyway, when he got back home, Savannah crashed and burned. She got really, really down and went pale and handed Dylan over to Marie and hasn’t said a word since then.”

Kate looked John square in the eye and said, “Do you want to play a few more, or go decorate the cakes now?”

John met her stare, held it. “So like I said, I don’t think anybody out there is in a very good mood.”

“Seems like that would be rather an understatement,” said Madeline.

“Marie is trying to talk Savannah into packing up Dylan and coming here. But I don’t know if that’s gonna happen,” John said.

“Well, what should I do about dinner? Should I hold off starting to cook?”

“No, don’t hold off,” Kate broke in. “We told them what time dinner was going to be.”

Both Madeline and John looked at her. “It’s Christmas Eve!” Kate said. “If they make it for dinner – great. If not, they’ll be here later on.”

“Well,” Madeline said, “looks like it may be just the three of us for dinner!” Her children knew her well enough to glean the carefully-disguised elation in her voice.

“Make a lot of food anyway, Ma. Please? They might be hungry when they get here.”

If they get here,” Kate said, with unapologetic accurately.