Month: January 2014

“Billie’s Birthday,” new chapter excerpt from the novel “Pushing the River”

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My Lady lets the book drop into her lap.  She closes her eyes, and lets  herself drink up the quiet, the solitude, for a few seconds more.  She takes her time climbing the stairs, listening to the sound of each footfall and its brushhh brushhh brushhh on the wooden steps.

When she turns the creaky old knob that then bangs against the kitchen counter, she hears only the hum of the refrigerator.  A few quick steps through the kitchen, she finds Sierra and her mother Billie sitting on the sofa in the back room of the house, mountains of clothes piled on and around them.  It looks like the room – which is everyone’s favorite — little but made mostly of windows – has exploded with clothing, spewed them out like a heedless volcano.

“Oh, hi, Maddie,” Billie says.  “We weren’t sure exactly where you were.”

“Downstairs.  I was downstairs.”

“We’re trying to figure out what to take.  I’m going to take Sierra home for a few days.”

“Oh?…”

“Yeah, she wants to come back home.”

“So..what are you doing?  Exactly?”

“We’re trying to figure out what to take.  You know.  For the baby and for Sierra.”

“How long have you both been…here?  Doing this?”

“Oh, I don’t know.  What would you say, honey?  An hour or so?  Maybe two?”

Madeline looks at Sierra, who says, “It’s hard.  It’s hard to figure out what to take!”

“We thought it would be a good time to go through everything and organize it.  You know.  Take inventory.  Organize,”  Billie adds.

“Well, if you’re only going for a couple of days…maybe you don’t need to worry about it so much.”

“I’ll just feel better when it’s all done.  Sierra knows how much I like to organize everything, don’t you, baby?”

Sierra nods, and looks over at Madeline with a face that is as unreadable to her as hieroglyphics.

“Plus my birthday’s coming up.  I want to make sure everybody has something super special to wear.”

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“Oh, right!  I knew your birthday was getting close.  What are you doing to celebrate?”

“Going to Ho-Chunk.  I am so excited.  I’ve been trying to go every year on my birthday since I started back in 1987.  I skipped 1992 to 1996, no it was 1995, and I missed 2004 and 2006, but every other year I’ve gone. Some of my friends surprised me by taking up a collection to give me some money.  Cousin Lou chipped in $20, and then my friend Donna really surprised me by giving $40, and when Nick heard he even chipped in $10.  That was on Tuesday.  The 5th.”

“I’m sorry.  What’s Ho-Chunk?  I don’t know what that is.”

“Are you kidding?  Are you kidding?  It’s a casino!  Up in Wisconsin!”

“A casino?”

“Of course!  I play the penny slots.  It’s my favorite thing to do.”

“I don’t know what a penny slot is, either.”

“Madeline, you do surprise me sometimes.  That’s like saying you’ve never seen the stars.”

Sierra picks articles of clothing from one basket, looks at them briefly, and puts them in a different pile in a different basket, or on the arm of the sofa, or on the floor, or anywhere at all.

“No, baby,” says her mother.  “Don’t put that shirt there.  That’s a whole different color group.”

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“Pushing the River,” NEW EXCERPT (yeah, HOORAY!)

IMG_0507It was the third time that mice had taken up residence here in the house.  On top of all the humans and their cats and dogs and friends that crowded into this here house, them little brown field mice found their way in again, too.

That first dog was a natural-born mouser.  By the time My Lady and the Husband even figured out they had a mouse problem at all, the dog was hard at work.  Inside.  Outside.  Didn’t matter where he was, he would make a sudden-like snap of his head, and before you knowed it he’d be licking his lips, the infernal rodent already swallowed up whole without so much as a trace.

That dog had been a squirrel-chaser from way back, but you always kinda wondered if he had any real seriousness about catching one, or if he was in it for the pure fun of the chase.  Well,  the day came — after many years of chasing he up and caught one, and that settled that.  It was like the taste of blood had lent newfound meaning to his life, and from then on the big, gentle beast was  forever on the lookout to up and kill any creature in his path that was not either a human or another dog neither.

My Lady might have worried about him swallowing all kind of mice, bones and claws and tails and all, cept for that time when he swallered up an entire roasting chicken they had left up on the kitchen counter to cool off for their family picnic.  When they come in later there was not so much as a spot of grease or lick of skin or any sign a-tall that the bird had ever existed.  The Husband had even surrounded the cooked-up bird with a sort-of barricade of forks and glasses and other kitchen things, every one of which stood right in its original place – a hedge of utensils surrounding nothing.  Well, they called up the animal doctor, and he asked them to remind him how much the dog weighed.  When they told him, he chuckled to hisself and said, you don’t need to worry a bit, cause that big boy won’t have any trouble with the likes of an 8-pound roasting chicken.  The whole thing became one of those stories that families like to tell over and over at get-togethers; but anyhow my Lady knew that no little teeny mouse would cause a digestive disturbance to the noble dog, or even a whole passel of them.

They counted eighteen mice that the dog chomped down that one summer, and that was just the ones they was around to catch him at.

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The second time them mice moved in, they was already on their second dog and the Husband was already the X.  But while the first dog had the Killer Instinct, the second dog was one of them kind that never met a single other creature that she didn’t want to befriend and love up, so when the new batch of mice migrated into the house, she’d go right on up to them and poke at them with her nose, and dance little dance-steps around them, and do any crazy thing she could think of to get them to play with her.

My Lady didn’t feel right about killing the same little creatures that the Boy and the Little One had as pets all them years, so she did her best to ignore the whole rodent situation for a good long time.  But once she and the Little One kept spotting them scuffling and skittering across the floors late at night, and all kinds of little holes were getting chewed in the bags lined up in the pantry, she decided she couldn’t ignore the dang things any longer.

She started out with the old-fashioned kind of mouse killer trap that’s been in existence as long as I have, the wooden things with the spring hinge where you put some kind of food that mice love to lure them in and then POW that hinge snaps down hard and kills ’em right fast.  Well, it took about 2 or 3 mornings of my Lady checking them traps, only to find the bait clean gone and the trap unsprung – kind of like the whole chicken incident with that first dog – when sure enough she done sprung the trap on her own fingers in the checking process, and even though I heared movie upon movie with all kinds of language I could never even dream of, I ain’t never heard nothing like what come out of her mouth, and next thing you know the whole dang package of traps she bought was tossed in the garbage.

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Death Rattles in the New Year, part 3

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As I said, it has been nearly a year now since this current laptop began its death throes —  when the screen would go blank, throwing up a solid blue nothingness while making that sickly little blipping noise.  It happened randomly and regularly for a good chunk of time.  With all due diligence, I emailed every single copy of every single thing I had ever written to myself, as back-up.  I read computer magazines, and user reviews, and chats, and everything I could get my hands on to begin the agonizing process of determining just which package of circuits and casings and keyboard positions and all that technical stuff that goes into a laptop computer was just right for me.  I went to stores and asked friends and accosted unsuspecting coffeehouse patrons, all in an effort to make the best possible determination about that most ephemeral and ethereal of traits – good writing juju.

“It just seems to me a perfect unwonder,”  J.D. Salinger wrote, “that writing’s almost never terrific fun.  If it’s not the hardest of the arts–I  think it is–it’s surely the most unnatural, and therefore the most wearying.  So unreliable, so uncertain.  Our instrument is a blank piece of paper–no strings, no frets, no keys, no reed, mouthpiece, nothing to do with the body whatever–God, the unnaturalness of it.  Always waiting for birth, every time we sit down to work.”

Birth!  EVERY TIME WE SIT DOWN TO WORK!!  Holy cow!!!

Clearly, the only thing to do was to keep my laptop until its very last electronic gasp.

Which is precisely why I am writing on it, still.

 

Thanks to my sister-in-law Karen for this quote.

 

Death Rattles in the New Year, part 2

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My laptop computer is dying.  Actually, it has been dying over the course of a really long time.  This is an experience I have not had elsewhere in my life, this matter where something is dying, and this looming demise is known, and the whole business unfolds over an unpredictable, ebbing and flowing, torturously long period.  In my family of origin, it is customary to drop dead with no foreshadowing whatsoever; so much so that we joke that both of my grandmothers “lingered,” one having lived nearly 36 hours following her heart attack, and the other drawing out her life’s breath for a full seventy-two hours following her stroke.

The first two laptops that I wrote on were given to me by good friends.  I mentioned to my buddy Nina that I was thinking of buying one, as it would be really great to be able to write at one of the many, many places/activities I was forever hauling my kids around to, many of which were far enough away that it made no sense to do anything but sit there on my ass for the two, or three, hours while the child in question did their thing.  Irish dancing.  Swimming.  Youth Orchestra.  To name but a few.

Nina offered up her daughter’s old IBM ThinkPad, and my life was forever changed.  I loved it immediately.  Devotedly.

Irish Dancing was a club that neither I nor my daughter ever belonged to — which was our acknowledged desire going into it.  She had been to RiverDance and been enthralled enough with the whole hopping/jumping/drumming/fluting/tapping spectacle that she thought it would be a delicious hoot to give it a whirl.  And so I ended up once a week sitting in a giant, overheated kitchen/meeting room of a community center filled with, well, Irish parents and their innumerable children for whom this whole endeavor was a Calling and a Way of Life.  The wigs!  The costumes!  The SHOES!!  Turns out there is no limit whatsoever on how much fervent, devoted conversational attention these topics can carry.  It was a loud crowded sweaty scene; and though I could tell that this miraculous life-changing mini-computer seemed to be spewing out some indecipherable sound at totally random intervals, I couldn’t glean it and had no idea exactly what it was.

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It wasn’t until waiting in the solemn library-grade quiet of the Youth Orchestra, with a roomful of Clasical Music Parents sipping lattes and reading WSJ,  NYT or managing their porlfolios, that the sound was discernible – yep, there were the Beastie Boys yelling out in all their glory,

“And say Oh my God that’s some funky shit.”

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Death Rattles in the New Year

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The first sign of my computer’s failing was nearly a year ago.  The screen would suddenly go blank, throwing up a solid blue nothingness while making a sickly little blipping noise.  My tech-savvy son said, “Yup. Hewlett-Packard’s are known for that.  It’s gonna die.”  Great.  A new computer.  Right when I had decided to format my two completed novels for e-publication.  And far more importantly, right when I had begun a new, third novel.

Anyone who writes will tell you that its success depends on a hair’s breath of “talent” (let’s say less than 1%), an abundance of grueling, persistent hard work (90%), and that the remaining >10% is a mystical amalgamation of caffeine, alcohol, the alignment of the stars, witchcraft, amulets, rituals, and the elusive ephemera called inspiration.  Most of us would argue that following our rituals extremely closely is the way in which we open the door for inspiration to find its way in.  And if it doesn’t; well, at least we are fully and happily caffeinated, sitting in our favorite spot, wearing our lucky slippers.

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My point being that I am deeply, and profoundly, attached to my laptop computer.

And I am absolutely convinced that I will be unable to write a single word, let alone a decent sentence, let alone a multi-hundred page novel on some interloping, new, unfamiliar piece of machinery that I have NO BOND WITH.  Never mind that this particular HP laptop is actually my fourth laptop and the fifth computer on which I have written.  Never mind that the first draft of my first novel was written almost entirely on a desktop computer in a dark basement in the pre-dawn hours.  Never mind that, as my son and daughter feel compelled to point out to me on a regular basis, I don’t really need a laptop at all, since I never move the thing from its place on the table in my sun room.  Well, of course I never move it!  How else would I be able to sit in my lucky chair to write!!

This is NOT an area where we can blindly believe that the past will prove predictive of the future; in other words, the historical fact that I have adjusted to numerous different computers with relatively little difficulty CANNOT BE COUNTED UPON to foretell that it would be the same in some hypothetical, untested future with some hypothetical, untested electronic device that may simply have terribly bad juju.

WATCH FOR PART 2 of this story…coming soon.

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