“The Doomsday Clock at 11:54,” a short story

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The Doomsday Clock at 11:54

            He had no idea why he was there, staring up at the board full of words that made no sense to him.  He didn’t, as a rule, stop at Starbucks on his way to work.  His wife stopped there every day.  Or at least she used to, when she had her old job and money was not so tight.  He had no idea if she still did; it was not the kind of thing he would know.  He wasn’t even much of a coffee drinker.  Sure, if someone offered him a cup, or if he was seriously dragging after a sleepless and dreamless night. 

            “What can I get started for you, sir?” 

            The green apron was familiar.  The super helpful perky pleasant tone.  He stared at the board again, the jumble of names, categories, numbers, trying to make sense of any of it.  “Something warm,” he thought. “That’s why I’m here.  The need for something warm.  Inside.  Oh my God,” he thought.  “I am sick.  I am so fucking sick.” 

            The green apron’s smile faded just a little, a barely perceptible perplexity showing as a faint line emanating from the top of her left eyebrow.  “Thank you,” he said.  And then, for lack of anything else that seemed right, once again, “thank you.”

            He could not remember ever feeling so exhausted.   Driving the less-than five miles back to his house, making the call to his office to declare his illness, all of this seemed completely unmanageable.  The need for sleep was overpowering.  No thought was in his head; not one.  The act of curling onto his left side, pulling his knees up tight, drawing up the billowy, soft comforter and carefully tucking it all around his bowed chin – nothing seemed like it could ever be so magnificent.  The scent of his own body in sleep, and his wife’s, just reached his nostrils from the glorious comforter before he was out.  His shoes were still on.

            “Where are you?”   She knew she sounded mad.  She feared she always sounded mad, despite her continual effort to maintain a certain cool and polite detente.  In truth, she was more baffled and worried than angry just then, the bulk of her afternoon and evening engaged in an attempt to arrange a few slim pieces of a massive jigsaw puzzle into some sort or order.

            She had called him around lunch time to work out the details of who-would-pick-up-whom and how they would get themselves and the girls to the game that night.  His not answering her call was hardly unusual, but his not emailing or texting back was.  At the moment that her second call to him was ringing, unanswered, she opened her desk drawer to grab a paper clip and saw the post-it with her divorce attorney’s name and number staring up at her.  She fingered it, moved it a few inches, picked up the clip, and ran her fingers over the indentations that the attorney’s phone number had made on the paper, closing the drawer as her husband’s voice message clattered in her ear.

            With swift efficiency and more force than necessary, she hung up the call and punched in the numbers for her husband’s office.   “Cynthia, it’s me,” she said.  “I can’t get hold of him.  Is he around?” 

            “No!”  She said all eager helpfulness and not even a hint of surprise or disapproval that his own wife would not already know.  “He called in sick today!”

            “Really?”  He had left that morning, same time as always, same everything as always.

            “Yes!  He called from a Starbucks parking lot.  I guess he was on his way in before he realized he was really really sick.”

            “Starbucks,” she said with utter incredulousness, “He doesn’t go to Starbucks.  Hates it!” 

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A small wave in the vast ocean of tamped-down rage burbled to the surface for just an instant.  She shooed it away and said, “Thanks, Cynthia.  Thanks so much.”

            She called both his cell phone, and the house phone, every half hour for the rest of the day.  The first time that she dialed, a faint annoyance still lurked at the corners of her consciousness.  But each time thereafter, the phone call was just one more task on a long list, one more event that happened in the rapid-fire course of a breakneck work day.  He did not exist as a person or even an image in her mind when she made the calls, and there was no feeling whatsoever.

            As the clicking of her heels on the granite stones of the entry way yielded to the softer tones of the living room’s parquet floor, she entered, as she did every evening, a household of occupied females who scarcely registered her arrival.  The babysitter and the younger daughter had an art project spread across the full space of the dining room table, while the older daughter lolled on the living room sofa, vaguely watching a TV show while scanning through her iPod.

            “Where is your dad?”

            The babysitter looked like someone caught in a game of freeze tag, the glue stick in her hand and her facial expression frozen in place.  Her younger daughter thought she was kidding, and continued coloring while saying in her scolding voice, “He’s at work!  You’re silly.” 

            She let her purse slide off her shoulder and on to the living room floor as she said, seemingly to the fallen purse at her side, “He called in sick.”

            The babysitter leaped to her feet as if she were somehow responsible for something she did not yet comprehend, “Really?  Well, we haven’t heard from him.  He’s not here!”

            “Well, this is all very odd.   How am I supposed to…”  This last she muttered to herself as she took the few steps that brought her to the bedroom door.  It stood open just a crack, perhaps an inch.  She knew she had closed it on her way out of the house that morning; there was no question.

            Pushing the door fully open, she saw her husband in the bed.  Even with the mountainous covers pulled about him, she could see that he was curled into a tiny ball, as if he were actually making an effort to compress his 6’ 3” frame into the smallest space possible, the kind of thing he might do to amuse the girls.  As if she had stuck her finger in an electric socket, a jolt of rage ran through her body seeing him lie there.  Coming around the side of the bed, his side of the bed, her hands clenched themselves into fists in an effort to contain her fury. 

            His eyes were open.  And she saw one impeccably polished shoe, poking out from beneath the comforter.  A slight gasp escaped her mouth as she sank onto the bed and said, “Jesus Christ, what’s wrong?”

            Everything was wrong.  She knew that moment that everything was wrong.

            “So tired,” he said.  “So tired.”

            “You’re sick.  Are you going be able to make it tonight?   If you’re too sick, that’s fine, of course that’s fine, but then I really need to get moving.  No one even knew you were here!    Do you need anything? ” 

            “Yes.”     “Yes.”      “No.”

            “What?”

            “Can go.  Tonight.”

            “OK, if you’re sure.  I need to hustle if we’re going to leave here on time.  Why don’t you take your own car, assuming you think you can drive, so if you start feeling too sick, you can just come home.  I’m going to get dinner on.  Homework had better be done, that’s for sure.  Do you want to take your own car?”

            “Yes,” he said.  He knew it was not really a question; she was already on her way to the kitchen.

           

            “Jesus Christ,” she thought, “whoever decided that indoor soccer was a good idea.”  The amount of noise that fourteen ten-year-old girls plus their coaches plus their enthusiastic parents made was truly brain-jangling caroming around the walls of a school gymnasium.   The younger daughter knelt on the floor between them, coloring intently in a book she had set on the bleacher seat, humming her favorite song from that musical she watched over and over with the babysitter.  She glanced from the coloring project, to the mess of her daughter’s markers, to her older daughter who watched the soccer action with grave and unsmiling attention.  She thought of how terribly somber the older daughter had been as a baby.  Hardly ever cracked a smile.  Never chortled or giggled the way she had expected.  Then one day, at the age of ten-and-a-half-months, they were at the park on an afternoon in the early spring, one of those days when the temperature remains frigid but the feeling of the sun is entirely different, carrying genuine warmth for the first time in months.    The bundled-up baby in the swing could barely move for the padding of outerwear.  She pushed the baby from the front, rather than behind, so they could see one another.  With one push, her gloved hand slipped on the rubbery swing surface, she lost her footing, and waved her arms in big ridiculous circles to regain balance.  The baby threw back her head and let out a deep, long belly laugh, as if she had been waiting all that time, as if she were saying, “Well, finally, now that was funny!”

            He may have run some errands on the way home.  That would be typical.  But two hours seemed too long, way too long, really.  It was the first time she had the sense of missing him in as long as she could remember.  They used to work every evening at their respective computers, his desk facing the wall in the family room and hers facing the wall of the dining room, their backs to one another and two rooms apart.  For so long, she had the sense of an imaginary arm that would bud from her right shoulder blade and reach out behind her as she poured over her work, its tendril fingers winding, reaching, and finally intertwining with his own ,meeting exactly halfway and binding the two of them together.

            Finally, finally, he answered his cell.  “Where are you?”

            There was silence in her ear.  More gently, then, she repeated, “Where are you?”  But there was still no response.

            “Are you there?”

            “Yes.”

            “Are you all right?  Where are you?”

            She strained to hear his breathing in her ear when no response came.  “Listen, I don’t know what’s going on.  I need to know where you are.  I’m going to call you right back.”  

            “Cynthia, hi, I’m so sorry to bother you at home, but, did he mention any meetings he may have had this evening?  Anything going on with work?”
            “No!  Sorry!”

            “Did you hear from him at all after he called in sick this morning?  At all?”

            “No!  Wait, no, that’s not right.  He called in for the conference call that was scheduled.”

            “Did you talk to him?  Did he seem OK?”

            “Come to think of it he didn’t really say anything.  I don’t think he said a word the whole time.”

            “OK, thanks.  Thanks.  I have to go, I’m sorry.  Thanks.”

            When she called him back, he answered right away, and she heard him sigh.

“Where are you?”   She knew she sounded mad.  She feared she always sounded mad, despite her continual effort to maintain a certain cool and polite detente.

            “Listen, we have to figure out where you are.  Are you at the drugstore?  Did you stop there?”   When she was met with silence, she tried again.  “Video store?  Did you return some tapes?”  Nothing.  “OK, let’s see, let me think where else you…”

            “Library,” came the word.

            “Library!” she said, “Good.  Library.  Good.  I’ll be right there. We need to go to the hospital.  I’m taking you to the hospital.”

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            She was reminded of a long-ago New Yorker cartoon where a man is jabbering away at his dog, and the dog is raptly attentive, while only catching about one in every ten or twenty words, the rest nonsensical gibberish.  The word she did hear, over and over, the word that did register, each and every time, was the word “stroke.”  As tidal waves of doctors and technicians and whoever-the-hell-they-were listened and looked and felt and shined lights and ordered tests and wheeled him in and wheeled him out, the blur of words was nearly non-stop.

            She stood at the side of the bed, letting the waves of words wash over her.  She was thinking only one thing.  The whole time, she was thinking it.  She hated herself for what it was, but she could not stop it.  “Fuck him,” she thought.  “Fuck him.”

            She spent the night in a giant, institutionally ugly gray chair that sort of reclined, her coat tucked around her shoulders like a blanket.   Never able to fall into a deep sleep, she became accustomed enough to the blips that measured her husband’s every heartbeat, the tones that marked his every breath, the whoosh of the automatic blood pressure cuff, the inhalations and exhalations of the pressure sleeves that constricted his legs –a virtual symphony of mechanized life support that became the not-at-all unpleasant soundtrack to her falling in and out of a lovely doze.  The hospital fell into a lull in the wee hours, a comforting quiescence that left her fully confident that everything possible had been done, and she could close her eyes and truly rest.

Her watch said 6:00 am when she tossed aside her coat.  A couple of medical people surrounded her husband, just as there had been at various points throughout the night.  They spoke in quiet, straightforward tones.   Her husband’s eyes were unnaturally wide, though, and his concentration ferocious as he gazed at the person on his right side.  I think he is trying to smile, she thought, but the two corners of his mouth did not match; they faced in different directions entirely.  His left eyebrow was raised in expectant attention towards his doctor, while his right brow laid stubbornly flat, the lid somehow deadened.

            “Oh my god,” she said, “oh my god.”

She sat at her husband’s left side, the side that was not paralyzed, throughout the day and its long procession of specialists:  rheumatologist, neurologist, cardiologist, occupational therapist, physical therapist.   The speech therapist arrived last, carrying a boxful of objects that she held in front of him, one at a time, each time saying, “Do you know what this is?”  And after a second, “That’s ok.  Take your time.” 

            She knew the day had been an immense effort for him.  She knew that all he wanted to do was sleep.  Yet each time a new set of footsteps hit the linoleum floor of his room, he snapped to attention through sheer effort of will. 

“My husband is completely exhausted,”  she said.  “It has been such a long day.”

“Straw!”  her husband said.

            “Very good!” the speech therapist responded.

            And just as suddenly, he cast his eyes in the direction of his wife’s coffee and said, “Cup!!”

            “Yes, that is a cup!”

There was a deep burning sensation high within her nose, and she reached over without thought to grasp her husband’s hand, just as the tear emerged from the corner of her eye.   With enormous effort, he turned his head in his wife’s direction.

            “Sharon,” he said.

            “Clark,” she sighed.

           

“The Elephant in the Room,” new excerpt from novel “Pushing the River”

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The Tumbleweed lay sleeping in Madeline’s bed above when she arose at the usual early hour.  The blush was still on her cheek from the night before as she made an extra-large pot of coffee and cleaned up the last few dishes from the dinner with Auggie and Bess.  When she sat down at her favorite spot in the sun-drenched room to breathe in the scents and sounds of the morning, she opened her computer to see Marie’s name in her email inbox.  Strange that Marie would be writing from Asia, she thought.

i’m sitting in a hostel in kuala lumpur and trying to reconcile the intensity of having stood in a river with my face resting against the temple of a young elephant’s massive head and my hands lost in the playful curling of his trunk with the fact that all i can think about when i’m not engaged in an active pursuit of some kind or a conversation with someone new is that i’m a terrible person and should’ve gone to be with sierra as soon as i knew she was pregnant… that i should’ve stayed in chicago two summers ago and fought for custody and maybe sierra and my mom would both be so much better off for it… that i should’ve, should’ve, should’ve… i have not lived my life the way i’ve really needed to over the last three or four years. I love john and our marriage is something i want so desperately to protect, but i don’t know how to be fair to him and our life and also be the person i need to be to be able to live with myself. I suppose i’m asking for your advice… as a friend, as a mother-in-law, as a professional woman. I don’t know how i can go back to new york and stay there without sierra. I don’t know how john would get by without me. I spent almost the entire time i’ve been gone stressing out about how not to spend money on anything unnecessary and listening to john worry about how he has no money coming in in new york and i can’t help thinking he just wouldn’t be able to support himself without me working full time. but john is a grown man with a massive line of credit and sierra is my little sister who has no support or resources- how is this even a difficult decision? I need to be in chicago. How does a marriage like ours survive a year apart? Will i only make things worse by being in chicago? Is there any chance my mom will —  no, there’s no chance. i don’t know, i don’t know, i don’t know. i’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown all the time- i’m terrified that when i get back i’m just going to fall apart completely. i’m terrified that john needs more from me than i have to give and that i need more from him than he has to give. what do i do?

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“Recon” (cont.) excerpt from “Pushing the River”

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Creatures that’s been in pain much of they lives can go one way or the other, and that includes humans, and that includes pain of all kinds.  They either take on an everlasting meanness, living all the time like a coiled-up snake, just waiting for the next chance to strike out, aiming to hit hard.  Or they go the other direction entirely, taking on their own sense life’s troubles and hardness, and doing they best to be in the world in such a way as to ease the path for others.  That was Recon.

            None of them animal doctors could ever figure out why Recon got gimpy in her font leg in the first place, let alone why she got worse and worse.  My Lady trotted her all over creation trying to get an answer; but not so very different than with me, the doctors tsk-tsked and clucked their tongues and wagged their heads and knitted their brows and sent Recon back home.  Recon just went on about her business, all the time walking a bit slower, going a bit less far from My Lady’s side, never once complaining about the pain all them docs said she was most definitely suffering.

            Ever so often my Lady would go over to wherever Recon was resting her bones, and she’d put her own forehead right against the big dog’s, stroking both her ears and whispering that she was sorry.   They’d stay that way for a time, head to head, then my Lady would dab at her eyes and get on up.

            Recon still greeted every new day, and every person that ever walked through the front door of our house, like they was a dang miracle that she could not even believe her own good fortune to encounter.  When the Tumbleweed came for dinner and never left, and Marie left the Boy back in New York to move in and lay in wait for the imminent storm, and the giant-bellied, wide-eyed child parked herself on the couch with her gummy bears and her movie star TV shows, Recon treated the whole shebang like it was just more folks to share the pure joy of being on the planet.  Of course when the Little One came back, and finally the Boy, Recon was like a mama whose babies had all returned to the nest, wagging her whole body all the day long.

            Strange, though, that for some infernal reason when the little tiny infant was brought in and added to the mix, Recon started doing something she ain’t never did before.  When nobody was looking, she would go over to the couch, grab the corner of one of them fancy pillows in her mouth, gentle-like, then hump the dang pillow for all it was worth!

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“Recon,” excerpt from novel “Pushing the River”

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It’s taken me near on my entire one hundred years to learn a thing or two about the creature known as a human being.  One of the things that has always been a perplexity to me is the whole notion of keeping animals inside the house and giving them the name of “pets.”  Both the Boy and the Little one went off to elementary at a school that was supposed to be special in science; and somehow that meant that every year they studied, and then brought home, some infernal thing or other to add to the general household menagerie.  First year, the science project was a teeny little guppy fish swimming around inside of a sawed-off plastic coke bottle.  Next thing you know that one teeny fish was swimming around with a whole passel of even teenier little ones, so small you had to look real close to even see them and make sure they was real.  That’s how the Boy ended up raising guppies for a time, ‘cept it turns out they ain’t nothing to do for the “raising” save wait a bit for some more teeny ones to show up in the coke bottle and then scoop them up and take them on over to the local pet store.

            Next year it was meal worms.  Two maggot-y looking things came home from the school in an old peanut butter jar that was half full of oatmeal.  They was just about the same color as the oatmeal too, and would stay buried way deep down except for once or twice a day when the Boy and the Little One would shake the jar around just a tad til they could see them bugs wiggling and waggling, and the kiddies would be all excited.  Course how long do you suppose anyone can stay excited about a couple of maggots even if they got a fancy name, and the answer is not very gosh darn long.  Soon enough, the kiddies more or less forgot about them, and my Lady tried to remember to check in on them once in a while just to see if they had died yet and she could throw them and their oatmeal home on out.  Well, one day, sure enough she did check and was surprised and amazed to find that they wasn’t any meal worms at all, nor their carcasses, but two big, dark beetles.  Course this led to all kinds of hoopla and whoop-de-doo until it dawned on somebody to consider what the heck do you do with two bugs in a jar of oatmeal.  Everyone was still pondering on this when the bugs up and died because they had come to the end of their time.

            The last year of the science project was the year everyone was most excited about, the kiddies talked about it for years, from the time they started at the school as kindy-gardeners until they finished up after the fifth grade.  Hermit crabs. 

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            Maybe I just can’t wrap my head around anything that doesn’t have warmth running through it, but somehow the hermit crab struck me as the most useless of all the so-called pets.  Scritch scratch scritch scratch all the night long.  And if you ask me he smelled funny.  Day after day the Boy would take the hermit crab out and hold him in the palm of his hand, and the Little One would hold her breath and wait for the creature to do something magical and wondrous, but the scoundrel would just sit there, and they put it on back in its home after a time, trying hard to act like they wasn’t disappointed.  One day they got the idea to put the crab down on the floor, and lo and behold, the creature skedaddled across the carpet like it had been shot from a cannon.  The kiddies whooped and hollered and had their friends come over to witness the miraculous spectacle.  Well, it seemed no more than a blink of an eye that the crab up and died, and I swear he did it out of pure spite.  I never trusted him.

            Of course there was a whole bunch of cats and dogs around here, too.  I never paid them much heed, until this last one that came into the house as a little rescued puppy named Recon.  The husband was ancient history, the kiddies was about to scatter, and all the other animals had died off by then.  I knew my Lady needed company, and she needed it bad.

            Creatures that’s been in pain much of they lives can go one way or the other, and that includes humans, and that includes pain of all kinds.  They either take on an everlasting meanness, living all the time like a coiled-up snake, just waiting for the next chance to strike out, aiming to hit hard.  Or they go the other direction entirely, taking on their own sense of life’s troubles and hardness, and doing they best to be in the world in such a way as to ease the path for others.  That was Recon.

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“Sierra Arrives” (cont.), excerpt from “Pushing the River”

3320928533_b0f4f2a6fd_z            “Does he know that Uncle Steve has been dead for fifteen years?”

            “He knows.”

            “And this clown thinks it’s totally OK to send Sierra back.  With your mom. Who’s having long conversations with a dead guy.”

            “You know how this works.  She’s not a danger to herself or others.”

            “Really.  So how does he explain Sierra locking herself in the bathroom because she was so fucking scared?”

            “He’s not a bad guy, Madeline.  I’ve been talking to him for a really long time.  He’s been there with my mother for a really long time.  There’s no choice here.  He’s gotta do his job.  Once my mom calls the police and reports Sierra gone, she’s officially a runaway, and you are then harboring a runaway.  He tells me this is a Class A misdemeanor.  He tells me you could end up going to jail.  For a year.  So, you gotta take her home now or he sends the cops over to haul you off to jail.”

            “Fuck.”

            “Exactly.”

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            “So he is totally convinced that your mom is OK?  He is willing to put his ass on the line that a pregnant fifteen-year-old is gonna be safe with her?

            “Yep.  That’s pretty much it.”

            “OK, tell you what.  You get his name, and his badge number, and you tell his ass that it’s his decision, and it’s his ass.  Put me on speaker phone if you want, and I’ll tell him myself.”

            “Um, I’m pretty sure he can hear you already.  I got the other phone right here.”

            “Great.  Saves time.”

            “You gotta take her home.  Right now.”

            “Does she know all this?”

            “Yeah.”

            “Is she OK with this?  I mean…”

            “She knows there’s no choice.”

            “Well, I’m not taking her home.  I’ll tell you what — if I am ‘harboring a runaway’ and am very nearly a felon, I certainly should not be putting this kid in a car and driving her anywhere, right?  And what’s more, if Billie’s in such great shape and all fine and dandy and ready to be a mom and not scare the shit out of her daughter in the middle of the fucking night, she can figure out a way to get here and get her Sierra herself.  Let’s see her do that.  We’ll be waiting right here.”

           In a reversal of events from a half hour before, it is Madeline’s turn to tread lightly down the hallway towards the blackness of the room where Sierra lays.  She stands for a moment outside, but through the three-inch opening of the door, a little voice says from the nothingness, “It’s OK, MadMad; I’m awake.  I know…”

            “I’m sorry, Kiddo.  Are you OK?”

            “Yeah.”

            “Anything I can do?”

            “No.”

            “Nothing?”

           “It’ ll take them a while to get here.  I’m gonna try to sleep.”

            “OK.”

            “OK.”

            “Then we’ll make a plan.  You’re not leaving here unless you feel safe.”

            Madeline waits outside the door, but no answer comes.

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“Sierra Arrives,” excerpt from novel “Pushing the River”

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Marie hardly ever called.  She apologized on a regular basis for being a lousy long-distance correspondent, feeling helpless as she watched all of her cherished Chicago connections eluding her grasp, her own ardent desire to keep them close set against a paralysis at doing anything that might stop them all from receding more and more into her corners.  So it was particularly unusual for Madeline to see Marie’s name, and her pixie-of-steel face flashing across the phone screen at 10:00 pm.  No way this can be good, Madeline thought to herself.

            “I don’t know what’s going on exactly.  Sierra sent me a text yesterday saying that Mom was acting weird, and now she’s just texted me saying that she’s not safe.”

            “Oh, shit.”

            “I think Sierra’s locked herself in the bathroom.  I think my mom’s talking to Uncle Steve.”

            “Oh, shit.”

            “I know this is a lot to ask, but is there any way that you can go and pick her up?  Bring her to your house?  I’m so sorry.”

             “Problem is I’m working tonight.  Til midnight.  I’m on phone duty, so I can’t leave.  Let me think.”

            “She doesn’t have any minutes left on her damn phone, so I can’t call her.  Can’t talk to her.  This is all through text.  Madeline, you’re not the first person I called.  I called everyone else I can think of.  I can’t reach anyone.  No one.”   Marie took a breath and said, “I’m so sorry.  I so didn’t want to drag you in to all of this.  I was so hoping my mom could hold it together just a little while longer.  Just til I move back.”

            “It’s OK, Marie.  If Sierra’s not safe, that’s all that matters.

            “I think she needs to get out of there now.  Like, now.  If I can get a ride for her, can she stay with you?  Can she come up there?  Tonight?  Right now?”

            “Of course,” Madeline said.

            “I might have to call a cab.  I might have to see if I can charge a cab, if they’ll take my credit card from here.”

            “What!?  That’s insane.  That’s gonna be a fortune!  I’ll be off work at midnight…”

            “Too long.  As long as I know it’s ok for her to come up there, I gotta go.  I gotta take care of this.”

            “It’s fine.”

            “I’m so sorry.”

            “You’re gonna really piss me off if you keep apologizing.”

            “Bye.  Sorry.”

            At fifteen minutes after midnight, Madeline opened the door, and only then did it occur to her that she had not seen Sierra for  two full years, four years since she had seen her without a heavily and carefully painted face.  Even the wildly striped hair did nothing to dilute the impact of seeing a child, a very small, very young, very sad and scared child standing there.  A child who happened to be seven months pregnant.

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            All Madeline could see in front of her was the giant-eyed little girl sitting in her big sister’s lap the night they met, rocking crazily back and forth on the floor in utter jubilation.

            “Whoa, you’re pregnant!”  Madeline quipped gamely.

            “Ha ha.  You’re hilarious.”

            “Look, you must be exhausted.  We’re not going to talk about anything tonight.  Not a thing.  You’re going to get a good night’s sleep.  Your sister told me you can’t make any phone calls cause you don’t have any ‘minutes,’ so I charged up my phone for you.  I’ve got unlimited minutes, so go wild.  Call anyone you want to.  Are you hungry?  Do you want something to eat?”

            “I’m pretty tired.”

            “Want to just go to bed then?”

            “Yeah. Well. Do you have any milk?  Not the weird organic stuff you used to get, just regular old milk?”

            “I still swear you cannot tell the difference in the milk.”

            “That’s what you always said about the gummy bears, so ha.”

            “I only have organic.”

            “Do you have chocolate I can put in?”

            “I do.  Your sister left about a gallon of it.”

            “Can you make it for me?  Can you warm it up?”

            “Gawd, you’re high maintenance.”

            “Can you bring it upstairs when it’s ready?  I gotta make a call.”

            “Sure.  You go on up.”

            Halfway up the stairs, Sierra stopped for a second, turned part way around, and said very quietly, “Thank you, MadMad.”

            “Yeah, yeah.”

            “A lot of chocolate, OK?  Really a lot.”

            A thousand memories merged when Madeline heard, deep in a hard-won sleep, the sound of faint, small footsteps coming down the hallway towards her room.  For many years, the Boy believed that his mother never slept a wink, but lay there all night doing nothing more than observing some quaint custom; how else to explain that by the time he reached her bedside– each and every time for a whole childhood — by the time he got close, she said in a full, wide-awake voice, “What’s wrong, honey?”  Not a drop of sleep remained when Sierra whispered into the darkness, “MadMad.  I’m really sorry.  Marie said I had to wake you up.  She’s on the phone.”

            “Madeline, my mother called the police.  She reported Sierra as a runaway, and that means you’re harboring a runaway, and that means you’re gonna get arrested.  The policeman is there with my mother right now.  I have him on the phone.  In my other ear.  While I’m talking to you.  You have to take Sierra home right now, or the police are gonna come arrest you.”

            “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding.”

            “No.  Most definitely not.”

            “Does this cop know about Uncle Steve?  Does he know that Billie is talking to Uncle Steve?”

            “Yes.  He knows.”

            “Does he know that Uncle Steve has been dead for fifteen years?”

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“This Is,” new excerpt from “Pushing the River”

 

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            There was something about that particular time.  They lay together afterwards for a very long while, not one word passing between them, wide awake.  Occasionally she would bury her fingers in his chest hair, or inhale deeply the scent of his skin.  Their breathing did not slow down, long after it should have.  When one of them finally said, “I’m starving,” they both leapt up, and stood facing one another across the bed, breathing heavily, eyes fixed on one another in the gathering dusk, neither moving, as if rooted to the spot, the moment, one another.

            “You know what this is, don’t you?”  Dan said.

            “What?”

            “I mean, you know what’s going on here, right?”

            “What?” Madeline said again.

            “This is love,” Dan said.  “There is love here.”

            “W H A T ? ! ?” Madeline shot back.  “I mean, W H A T ? ! ?”

            “Stop saying ‘what.’  You know there is.”

            “Shit!”

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            Madeline paced along her side of the bed within a roughly two-foot square, more  like a crazy dance, while Dan gazed into the now-dark room with a thousand-mile stare.

            “That was most definitely not the plan!” Madeline said.

            “The plan was to have no plan.”

            “Yeah, but the plan was definitely not…this!”

            “It’s not in anybody’s control here.  It just is.”

            “Well aren’t you just the zen fucking master.”

            Dan laughed, and Madeline said, again, “Shit!”

            “Come on.  I thought you were starving.”

            “I thought you were starving.”

            “Let’s get some food. You. Me. Us.”

            “For the record, I feel compelled to state that I am not happy about this.”

            “Duly noted.  How about Chinese?”

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