Category: books

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…

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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.

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A Call

This is the fourth chapter from the “September” section of my nearly-finished (!!) novel PUSHING THE RIVER.  Watch for the fifth chapter next Friday, and catch up on  previous chapters in my blog entries over the past month.

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A Call

Dan lay sleeping in Madeline’s bed above when she rose 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 Savannah as soon as i knew she was pregnant… that i should’ve stayed in chicago two summers ago and fought for custody and maybe Savannah 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 boston and stay there without Savannah. 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 boston 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 Savannah 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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Know When to Walk Away

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Those of you who have been following my blog closely – and have you two met, by the way 😉 – have witnessed the birth and development of my third novel, entitled “Pushing the River.” Over the course of the past three years, the novel has endured several structural changes, a complete change of narrator and voice, and the completion of an early rough draft just weeks ago.

“Pushing the River” was inspired by the real-life event of a baby being born. During the fall of 2012, my house swelled from a population of 2 – if you count my dog – to an assemblage of seven people and four animals. Originally, the house itself intended to tell the story of the most astonishing four-month period in its 100-year history.

One time previously, I put this novel aside for a time; I paused, unsure how – or if – to proceed. Ultimately, I decided to change the narrator from the house’s boiler to a regular old third-person omniscient narrator. I heartily missed Merle the Boiler, and always wondered if he might return.

Alas, Merle will not be coming back.

It is with a kaleidoscope of ever-shifting mixed feelings that I have decided to put this novel to rest for good.  The current situation with this now three-and-a-half year old child renders it impossible to continue a work of fiction based on his entry into the world.

There is much good work, and good writing in the would-be book, and the deep, unparalleled satisfaction of having put into words some things I had set out to say. What more, after all, can any writer hope for?

“I was trying to feel some kind of good-bye. I mean I’ve left schools and places I didn’t even know I was leaving them. I hate that. I don’t care if it’s a sad good-bye or a bad good-bye, but when I leave a place I like to know I’m leaving it. If you don’t you feel even worse.”

J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

 

What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”

–Jack Kerouac, On the Road

 

image by Pablo Picasso

Thinking of a New Year, from the novel “Pushing the River”

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She glanced at Dan’s note, not reading the words, but taking in a general impression of the handwriting, the pattern of the markings on a torn page of paper. She sighed deeply, and inhaled the exhilarating, still-fresh aroma of the delicious Christmas tree. No question that Frasier Fir is the way to go, she thought: it smells as if it were chopped down yesterday. She pictured the Brawny Paper towel guy, axe slung over one shoulder, wearing nothing but his flannel shirt, ancient jeans and worn boots as he trudged through the powdery snow in search of their tree.

She would leave it up until after New Year’s. Maybe another week after. Taking down the Christmas tree struck Madeline as one of the saddest things in the world. Even when Dick had been around, she had always done it herself. He insisted that he couldn’t trust himself to stow away the ornaments handed down from her mother’s family, as well as those from her own childhood; although this was miraculously not an issue when he dove into the tissue-wrapped antiquities with childlike glee when they decorated the tree each year. So be it. Yet another year when she would do it alone. It allowed her a degree of ceremony she would not have otherwise. Time when she could hold the oldest ones – the ones her mother had painstakingly dated, going back to 1919 – and try to picture her long-dead mother as the gangly, sickly, big-eyed child that she had seen in photographs. Carrying an equally skinny, frightened-looking doll with her everywhere she went.

Taking down a Christmas tree was like a death. The death of another year. Pack up and put away whatever was special, or memorable, or lasting. Throw away the rest. Turkey feather. Christmas tree.

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Perhaps, Madeline thought, perhaps I have lived long enough.

It seemed to her, quite suddenly, that she had seen a great many Christmases. That around the tree had gathered so many, many people whose lives had touched hers, and who were now gone. Like a long Dickens novel, where the sheer volume of characters who paraded through the pages was impossible to comprehend.

When she eventually dragged this perfect tree out to the curb, leaving a trail of needles she would find herself sweeping up well into the summer, Dan would be gone, too. I have had so many different lives, she thought. Different little universes, created one conversation cup of coffee glass of wine walk along the lake whispered tender words caresses orgasms at a time. One at a time, day after day, and a world is constructed. What was it Octavio Paz said?

if two kiss
the world changes, desires take flesh
thoughts take flesh, wings sprout
on the backs of the slave, the world is real–

Oh shit, she thought. I must be seriously fucking stressed. Quotes are popping into my head. Bad sign.

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“Turkey Feather,” new from the novel “Pushing the River”

Here is the scene it its entirety:

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Madeline thought she was hearing a kerfuffle of footsteps running up and down the stairs as she folded the clothes in the basement laundry room. Weird, she thought.

Madeline believed tenaciously in the power of simple pleasures. Folding freshly cleaned clothes into an architecturally-arranged, enormous pile that she could carry in one trip always tickled her. She had to rest her chin on the top of the heap and bear down, sniffing deep into the fragrant laundry, in order to manage the load. Her arms carefully cradling the bottom of the stack and her chin planted, she began her ascent of the first of two flights of stairs between her and the laundry’s final destination in her bedroom.

Rounding the landing on the second flight of stairs, saying to herself: hahaha, nearly there and not a single sock teetering, Madeline caught a glimpse of the wild turkey feather, lying on the sofa, where Savannah had been running it back and forth across Dylan’s cheeks while she wrinkled up her nose and cooed at him.

The turkey feather. A souvenir from the day she and Dan drove to the Lake Michigan dunes and took a magnificent hike. They were walking single file on a narrow path, with panoramic views of the forest, the water, the rolling hills, on both sides of the ridge. Dan walked a bit ahead, and they were mostly silent as they looked back and forth, drinking everything in. It was a warm day for the season, with the heavy, thick sunlight of late fall that Madeline had loved all her life. Dan was nearly at the top of the hill when he stopped walking and turned to face her. He smiled at her, and his blue eyes shone.

She breathed a little heavily from the climb through the sand. They stood a good twenty-five feet apart, saying nothing. Dan looked a million miles into the distance, then had his attention caught by something lying on the ground. He walked a little way off the trail and into the thick undercoating of the forest floor, reaching down to pick something up. He walked over to Madeline and held out a long, thin striped feather.

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“A feather!” Madeline said.

“A wild turkey feather,” Dan said.

“Really? Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure. I grew up around here.”

“I will keep it forever,” Madeline said. “A souvenir.”

“Of course you will,” Dan said. Everything about his face belied the fact that he loved her, and that this fact made him proud, and shy, and embarrassed, and profoundly confused.

Madeline cajoled the laundry up the final flight of stairs, down the short hall and into the bedroom, where she immediately noticed…some lack. Something not-there that had been there before, the empty space shouting at her. It took her a moment to realize what was absent. Dan’s various paper bags, there in the corner since he had unexpectedly taken up residence a month earlier, were gone.

Before Madeline had time to ponder any further, she saw a single white page, its ragged edge clearly ripped out of a school notebook, lying in the center of the bedroom chair.

Dear Madeline,

I’ve never known anyone like you before, nor any people like your family either. You guys are all amazing – your incredible openness and energy for one another, your devotion, the intensity with which you communicate and love each other. I have truly never seen this before. Frankly, it makes me incredibly uncomfortable. I need a break. You guys are awesome, but it’s all a little much for me. You may have noticed that my stuff is gone; I’m going tohang out with my family for a while and chill. I’m really sorry for the abruptness of all this, but I just need to go.

Love always,

Dan

What? Madeline thought. I mean: WHAT!?!?!!!

Her thoughts went approximately like this:

–You son of a bitch, who asked you to MOVE IN HERE IN THE FUCKING FIRST PLACE?

–You total asshole douche bag, WHO THE FUCK SAID YOU COULD LEAVE NOW?

–Wait. Seriously?! You couldn’t even fucking wait until I was finished folding the laundry? You seriously had to rush around and sneak out before I even came upstairs? You chicken shit slime bag coward, YOU COULDN’T EVEN FUCKING FACE ME?

And finally:

–LOVE ALWAYS?!?! YOU HAVE GOT TO BE FUCKING KIDDING ME. LOVE. ALWAYS.

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“Turkey Feather,” new from the novel “Pushing the River”

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Madeline thought she was hearing a kerfuffle of footsteps running up and down the stairs as she folded the clothes in the basement laundry room. Weird, she thought.

Madeline believed tenaciously in the power of simple pleasures. Folding freshly cleaned clothes into an architecturally-arranged, enormous pile that she could carry in one trip always tickled her. She had to rest her chin on the top of the heap and bear down, sniffing deep into the fragrant laundry, in order to manage the load. Her arms carefully cradling the bottom of the stack and her chin planted, she began her ascent of the first of two flights of stairs between her and the laundry’s final destination in her bedroom.

Rounding the landing on the second flight of stairs, saying to herself: hahaha, nearly there and not a single sock teetering, Madeline caught a glimpse of the wild turkey feather, lying on the sofa, where Savannah had been running it back and forth across Dylan’s cheeks while she wrinkled up her nose and cooed at him.

The turkey feather. A souvenir from the day she and Dan drove to the Lake Michigan dunes and took a magnificent hike. They were walking single file on a narrow path, with panoramic views of the forest, the water, the rolling hills, on both sides of the ridge. Dan walked a bit ahead, and they were mostly silent as they looked back and forth, drinking everything in. It was a warm day for the season, with the heavy, thick sunlight of late fall that Madeline had loved all her life. Dan was nearly at the top of the hill when he stopped walking and turned to face her. He smiled at her, and his blue eyes shone.

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She breathed a little heavily from the climb through the sand. They stood a good twenty-five feet apart, saying nothing. Dan looked a million miles into the distance, then had his attention caught by something lying on the ground. He walked a little way off the trail and into the thick undercoating of the forest floor, reaching down to pick something up. He walked over to Madeline and held out a long, thin striped feather.

“A feather!” Madeline said.

“A wild turkey feather,” Dan said.

“Really? Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure. I grew up around here.”

“I will keep it forever,” Madeline said. “A souvenir.”

“Of course you will,” Dan said. Everything about his face belied the fact that he loved her, and that this fact made him proud, and shy, and embarrassed, and profoundly confused.

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“There Is No Formula,” new from the novel “Pushing the River”

This is the 3rd posting for this continued chapter.  The final paragraph of the previous post is repeated for continuity.

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“Really?” Madeline said. She did delight in this man who had never been around a baby, never held a baby in his entire 55-year-old life. She had watched him stand at a terrified, awkward distance when he came to the hospital after Dylan was born. She had watched him thaw, gradually at first. She had seen him become mesmerized. She had heard him say, more than once, that maybe, no definitely, if he had met her earlier in his life, the two of them would have would have made a family together. Fuck. What do you say to that? And here he was, offering to mix a bottle of infant formula for a baby whose 15-year-old mother was catching up on her sleep with some lost boy named Jose, because she was pissed at her baby daddy who had flirted with another girl thousands of miles away.

Dan left the room and returned a few brief seconds later. “There’s no formula left. None.”

He retrieved the empty container from the kitchen and held it out to her, shaking it around for emphasis.

Madeline sighed heavily.

“She needs to figure this out,” Dan said. “She insists she wants this baby, and she needs to figure this out.”

“She’s fifteen years old,” Madeline said. “She ain’t gonna figure out shit.”

“Well, as long as she’s here, she’s gonna try.” Dan turned on his heels and sprang up the stairs to the second floor. Madeline held her breath, picturing Dan clenching and unclenching his jaw in her head. The lightness of his knock on Savannah’s door surprised her, as did the gentle voice that matched it.

“Savannah?” Dan said. “You need to get up. We’re completely out of formula. You need to go get some.”

After a short pause, Savannah’s groggy voice replied, “OK. I’m up. OK”

Dan remained at her door until he heard a general stirring of activity, then said, “Try to hurry up. Dylan’s already hungry.”

Dan rejoined Madeline in the sun room, where Dylan had drifted into a light snooze on her shoulder. “Nicely done,” she said. “You handled that well.”

“I think we would have made really good parents,” Dan said.

“To a 15-year-old unwed mother? Great.”

“No. You know that’s not what I meant. You make all of this look so…appealing. Like no other choices or other kinds of lives make sense to even consider,” he said.

A highly disheveled Savannah appeared in the doorway, joined at the hip to a skinny wraith of a boy who brought to mind the word “wan” despite his Hispanic heritage.

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“I guess we’ll have to walk over to the Walgreen’s to get some,” Savannah said.

“OK. He’s fallen asleep. He’s fine for now,” Madeline said.

“I mean, Marie usually takes me to that place where I can get the formula for free, but there’s no way to get there cause she’s at work, right?” Savannah offered.

“Right,” said Dan, before Madeline could answer.

“So I guess we’ll walk over to the Walgreen’s.”

“OK.”

“So…I need to borrow the money for it,” Savannah said.

“You need to borrow the money?”

“Don’t worry; Marie will pay you back as soon as she gets home. It’s usually, like, $25 for a container. Can you believe it’s so expensive? God, I’m SO glad we get it free.”

“I’m not worried,” Madeline said. “Let me rephrase. I’m not worried about getting paid back by Marie.”

Dan reached into his pants pocket. “I’ve got a 20 right here. Do you have the rest, Savannah? Five bucks or so?”

“Um, no, well, I can count up my change,” Savannah said. “I might have it.”

“Never mind counting change. You can get the rest out of my wallet,” Madeline said.

“OK. Thanks,” Savannah said. “Hey MadMad, can I borrow your jacket? Again?” She giggled.

“So I guess you want us to watch Dylan while you two go off to the store,” Dan said.

“Oh. Right. No, we can take him.” Savannah looked over at the silent, sunken waif at her side.

“Except I think he barfed all over the carrier. I think I need to wash it.”

“No reason to wake a hungry baby to take him outside in a barf-covered carrier. If you guys hurry, I’ll have enough time to get to work,” Madeline said. “So hurry.”

With a general kerfuffle and Savannah making approximately ten times the number of movements as The Wraith, the front door closed behind them. Dylan moved his head and frowned slightly in his sleep.

“Talkative chap, isn’t he?” Dan said.

“Jose? Yeah. He’s grown about a foot and is otherwise unrecognizable from the kid I met a couple of years ago; but I don’t remember him saying a single word back then either. He just sort of followed Savannah from room to room. She ate it up at first, but then she got more and more annoyed and ending up treating him pretty much like shit – calling and texting other guys the whole time he was around – until he vanished. It was an interesting ‘relationship.’”

“Ah. Well, it makes sense then that they’ve hooked up again,” Dan said.

The two of them chuckled softly. “It’s kind of not funny,” Madeline said.

“It’s not funny at all,” Dan said. “That’s why we’re laughing.”

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photos by Diane Arbus