“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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