Claire Arrives

It’s Friday.  It’s time for the next chapter installment from my novel PUSHING THE RIVER.  You may notice that I did not say “finished” novel, as I have completely reconceived the structure since last week.  Oh well, such is the joy of revision…

tumblr_m9pcj8TJpB1r48hglo1_1280

Claire Arrives

The call came from Claire one morning: “I need your help,” she said. I have no memory of how to do this. I have no idea how people move from one place to another.”

The decision that had begun with a gentle hand against a baby elephant’s trunk in far-off Asia had been made. John would remain in Boston to finish school, and Claire would return to Chicago. She would move into the top two rooms on the uppermost floor of Madeline’s house, and she would await the gathering storm.

Billie Rae, Claire’s mother, and Savannah, her baby sister, made it abundantly clear that this was thoroughly unnecessary, confounding, and furthermore, insulting. They steadfastly maintained that they had full control of the situation at hand.

Unwanted in the new life ahead, and leaving her old life behind, she would await the gathering storm.

Madeline knew the low rumble of the U-Haul when it pulled up in front of the house, though her back was turned to the windows facing the street. She considered how many times she had helped her children move in, or out, since each of them had first left home. She was pretty sure the number was somewhere around 623 times, or so it seemed to her. Still, she rued that her advancing years enabled her to do less and less; her legs now wobbled by the third flight of stairs, and she needed to put boxes down to rest for a moment all too often.

It had been decided that Claire would bring the majority of her and John’s possessions back to Chicago with her, leaving John with a skeletal assortment of bare necessities as he focused on the grueling home stretch of school. Still, Madeline was quite taken aback when Claire swung the U-Haul cargo doors open to reveal a van that was crammed completely full, every possible square inch consumed in what amounted to a breathtaking feat of engineering.

Reading Madeline’s thoughts on her face, Claire remarked, “Yeah. We had to pack it and re-pack it a few times.”

Claire had also brought their dog. Everyone marveled since the first day Claire chose the impossibly tiny sleek brown puppy that she had found the exact canine equivalent of herself, for Proust was relentlessly demanding, deeply affectionate, possessed of strong and generally instantly-formed impressions of all people and things in his path, somewhat unpredictable, and generally in-your-face with his intense and abiding love.

funny+photography+dog+chasing+ball+underwater+swimming+cute+pet+animalClaire made four or five trips to and from the U-Haul, and up and down the three flights of stairs, for every one that Madeline made. Having endured two days of driving in a cramped and un-airconditioned U-Haul, Proust was not about to leave Claire’s side. He followed right at her heels — crossing the street to the van, jumping into the incrementally growing empty space in the cargo area, wagging his mini tail as the women piled on each load, and yipping his high-pitched howling bark at completely random intervals — the entire time.

The U-Haul sat empty in an astonishingly short amount of time. Madeline stood in the street and gaped into the vast cavern of vacant space as if it were a true miracle, as if an outline of the virgin mother would undoubtedly appear on a side wall, like Jesus on a piece of toast.

“I’ll clean it out later,” Claire said over her shoulder. “I want to do some unpacking.”

“What are you talking about – ‘clean it out?’ It looks pretty cleaned out to me.”

Claire did not respond; she was already on her way into the house.

Madeline leaned her head into the stairwell and called up to Claire, “Anything I can do to help?”

A distant voice, dimmed by mountain ranges of boxes and belongings that lay between the two of them, called back, “ No. Thanks. I’ll feel better if I can get a little bit done.”

Madeline attempted to read and otherwise occupy herself despite the fact that it sounded as if elephants were tossing large pieces of furniture around, two stories over her head. Every so often Proust let out a machine-gun burst of yipping, serving as Claire’s doppelganger mixture of impatient insistent cheerleader taskmaster.

Amidst the cacophony of chaos, Madeline found herself welling up with a strange wave of utter peacefulness. Kate could hear the occasional yip, clunk, rumble and clatter while she talked to her mother on the phone, and Madeline mentioned her wonder at her own surprising sense of peace. “Ha,” Kate said, “Face it, Mom. This is your dream come true.”

“What do you mean?” Madeline asked.

“The house is filling up again,” she said.

When Madeline hung up the phone, a ripe orange glow from the late September sunset flooded the room, and she noted a distinct lack of clatter coming from above. Again she climbed the stairs and leaned her head into the stairwell. “Claire? How’s it going up there?”

“It’s going OK. Come on up if you want.”

Madeline slowed as she neared the top of the attic stairs, stopping a few steps from the top. Claire sat on an old wooden chair at a beloved kitchen hutch she had rescued long ago and now transformed into a desk. She was leafing casually through a stack of papers when she looked over at Madeline and said “What? I’m taking a break for a while.”
Madeline had every expectation of utter catastrophe, but nothing could have prepared for the scene she beheld.

The sizable room looked as if a gifted and meticulous set designer had labored long and hard to create a masterwork from the following task: assemble a young woman’s room that is both crowded and painstakingly decorated. Give prominent placement to her many hundreds of books and tapes —  likewise to her artwork that has been collected from friends and strangers alike since she was a child. Make clear that she is a lifelong denizen of thrift stores, where she has spent enormous amounts of time scanning the tossed-aside remnants of others’ lives for objects that speak directly, and deeply, to her. Demonstrate that her aesthetic is completely idiosyncratic, and fully formed. Fill all of the space. Make clear that each and every item in the room has a meaningful history, and has been placed with great care.

Proust lay at the foot of the perfectly-made bed, radiating serenity in a way that suggested he was always this calm, and furthermore, was prepared to chest bump anyone who hinted otherwise.

The house is filling up again, Madeline thought.

Perfect_Family

Not Safe

Here it is: this week’s chapter from my finished novel (well, except for those soul-sucking rewrites I’m trying to face/trying to avoid)  PUSHING THE RIVER.

gaugain_art_1039902069_

Not Safe

Madeline stared at a dark ceiling, knowing that sleep would elude her, and rolled Claire’s words over in her mind: “She’s not safe.” She thought of two years prior, the last time she had seen Savannah. That summer.

“Not safe.” Madeline heard about the events of that night the following day. She had awakened to then-13-year-old Savannah curled up in a ball, deep in slumber on the couch in the very room where Claire told the story of the previous night as if it were a tale of very long ago, and quite far away. Grotesque scenes involving screaming sirens, spewed vitriol, handcuffs, jail, emergency protective orders, and a young girl – with a freshly stitched and gauze-wrapped gash across her forearm – now in the legal custody of Claire, with the legal residence of Madeline’s home.

“Not safe,” Claire had said again, two years later, into the phone.

Madeline thought of a photo that Claire had pinned to the wall of the room that she and John lived in that summer. An old photo of her mother Billie Rae when she was young, a grown woman, but still young. She was seated at a kitchen table, leaning forward in her chair to nestle herself, her slight-framed body, fully against the table. One shoulder tilted towards the camera in a way that looked both flirtatiously coy and thoroughly exhausted. The photo was not a close up, and the diEddiece made Billie seem even tinier, all long dishwater blonde hair and big blue eyes. There was something else, too – a softness. The girl in the picture possessed a definite softness. This is what Madeline would try to remember. That there had been a time when Billie was soft. Vulnerable. Young. There was strength in that face. And fatigue. And pleading. Whatever came next, and next after that, Madeline would try to remember the girl in that picture.

gauguin.spirit-dead-watching

Art: Gauguin

Savannah Arrives

Here is the sixth chapter installment of my COMPLETED novel entitled PUSHING THE RIVER.  New one next Friday!

Hopper Morning Sun

Savannah Arrives

Claire* 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 elude 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 Claire’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. Savannah 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 Savannah’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.” Claire 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.”

moving-house

“It’s OK, Claire. If Savannah’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 Savannah 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.

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.

7405094364_1524042a47_z

“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, Savannah 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, John believed that his mother never slept a wink, but lay there all night doing nothing more than pretending; 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 Savannah whispered into the darkness, “MadMad. I’m really sorry. Claire said I had to wake you up. She’s on the phone.”

“Madeline, my mother called the police. She reported Savannah 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 Savannah 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?”

“He knows.”

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

images

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

“Really. So how does he explain Savannah 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 Savannah 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.”

“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 Savannah 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 Savannah 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.

4000889153_b11c84dd94_b

*NOTE:  Name change alert!!  The character previously named Marie has now been named Claire.  Claire is Savannah’s older sister, and is Madeline’s daughter-in-law.