Conversational Vortex

It’s June, it’s Friday, and it’s time for another chapter excerpt from my novel PUSHING THE RIVER.  In the two weeks since I last posted, and with the help of dedicated readers/friends, I conceived of a new way to structure the book and have been hard at work.  I say with hope and fear, it’s possible that I am within striking distance of a completed new draft!!

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Conversational Vortex

Claire, along with every other member of the family, had an irrational but intense distaste for Madeline’s coffee maker. Claire’s very first job had been in the coffee house directly across the street from her apartment, a place she had such a deep and abiding affection for that she still found any reason to drive past it more than ten years later. In the years and the motley assortment of coffee joints in the time since then, she had babied and cajoled her fair share of finicky machinery in order to produce the sumptuously rich shots of espresso and foam flourishes that kept customers standing in line for her creations.

She would not even go near Madeline’s useless behemoth.

The thing had been a gift from a long-gone beau and held no particular sentimental place in Madeline’s heart. Still, it was there; and Madeline had been raised by a woman who said “I’m too Scotch to throw it away and get a new one” enough times that it had stuck, especially considering that her mother had no Scotch ancestry whatsoever.

Each and every part of the coffeemaker required precise handling and placement – the handle of the filter basket needed to be facing forward for brewing; the lid of the basket assembly then had to be positioned just so; likewise, the lid of the coffee pot itself had to be screwed on to an exact point and then placed meticulously under the filter assembly. This so struck Madeline as an apt metaphor for nearly all aspects of her life – that great effort and painstaking care were requirements—that she never questioned the coffeemaker, nor felt put upon in carrying out the steps each morning that resulted in an excellent and deeply satisfying pot of coffee. After all, wasn’t it her own daughter who had said, “Not everything that’s really hard is also good; but everything that’s really good is also hard.”

No one could ever figure out whether it was one specific thing, or a compounding of smaller things that tipped the scales for the old coffee pot. Every so often, the scoundrel would simply refuse to allow the brewed coffee to flow smoothly into the carafe below, but would erupt like a volcano, spewing a scalding muck of boiling water and coffee grounds across the entire kitchen counter, sending rivulets down the cabinet doors and dark streams across the floor.

It had happened to everyone in the family at one time or another, and each of the family members had their own unique response: it happened to Madeline only once. When it happened to Kate, she practiced putting the various parts and pieces together over and over and over, until she was certain that she had mastered it. But once satisfied that mastery had been achieved, she promptly forgot every step of the procedure and needed a refresher course each time she started anew. John managed to be someplace else, nearly always, when a pot of coffee needed to be made — he so relished the cared-for feeling that came from someone placing a freshly-made, wonderfully warm, aromatic cup in his hand. On the other hand, if elected, he held no rancor nor possessed any fear about the crusty old pot; he approached it with an even, calm attitude, expecting that everything would turn out just fine.

Claire gave it a very wide berth. She snarled at it, scowled in its direction when she went about the business of her cooking. Truth be told, she preferred to not even pour herself a cup from a fully-finished batch, so convinced was she that the diabolical device could not be trusted under any circumstances whatsoever and was, in fact, capable of genuine Evil.

Claire’s distaste of the wicked pot was so great that she did not budge from her treetop, arty nest until she heard Madeline’s feet hit the floor of her bedroom below at approximately 6:58. Even then, Claire did not move a muscle until a safe period of time had passed, and she could descend the stairs with certainty that the morning’s fresh pot of coffee awaited. Which she generally did not drink, although she usually agreed to have Madeline pour her a cup, noting the obvious pleasure it gave her mother-in-law; but Madeline would later find the stone-cold, untouched mug squirreled away in a corner of the kitchen.

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After years of managing the opening shift in coffee joints, Claire had long ago lost the ability to sleep in. She awakened each day sometime between four am. and five, and having her life spread out before her in one large room enabled her to accomplish a great deal in the hours before Madeline opened her eyes to the new day. By the time “good morning’s” passed from each of them to the other, Claire had: read passages from a variety of books that recent events brought to mind; corresponded, both on paper and via email, with people across the world who had stirred her soul into a permanent, unmovable, ferocious loyalty; written in her journal; scanned vintage anatomical drawings; continued the eternal process of organizing her thousands and thousands of photographs taken from world travels; jotted down ideas for a new children’s book she was writing; and curled up in the corner of the room so she could manage a long, impassioned, whispered conversation with her husband in a voice so hushed that Madeline would not even have the barest murmur invade her dreams.

“I have so much I need to get done today.” Claire squeezed herself into a small corner of the sofa that was closest to the door, as if the proximity to an exit and the sheer discomfort of her position would magically propel her. She cradled the cup of untouched coffee between her two hands and blew across the steaming surface.

Claire alternated between two mood states that Madeline thought of as more or less “off” and “on.” In the “off” times, Claire walked with her eyes cast on the floor. She moved with such stealth that it was nearly impossible to know where she may be in the house, or if she was even there at all. She shrugged in response to any communication directed at her. She gave the ardent impression of wishing to be invisible, or perhaps to disappear entirely. During the “on” times, she could be stunningly talkative. The shifts came as a bit of a jolt to Madeline, when the same young woman who had slunk around in the deep shadows for a time suddenly plopped down on the sofa and became downright chatty, mustering an astonishing string of words, sentences, paragraphs, ideas that were not only exceptionally articulate, but were also delivered so blindingly goddamn fast that Madeline had to concentrate especially hard on the content lest she get carried away by the breathtaking delivery itself.

She had an assortment of expressions that she peppered frequently through any and every subject she happened to be addressing, a trait Madeline found so utterly charming she waited for each new occurrence and was brought very nearly to tears by them. These included:

At all whatsoever
Nonsense
I mean, I feel like
Incomparable boob
I mean, are you fucking kidding me?
Ninnyhammer

and Madeline’s personal favorite:
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“Did you hear my big fight with John last night?” Claire asked.

“What!? No!” Madeline responded.

“Nonsense. I can’t believe you didn’t hear it. I was seriously screaming at him. Because
he was being a complete ninnyhammer, I mean, I feel like he started it because he was actually screaming into the phone at me, I don’t even remember a time when he’s yelled at me like that, ever, before, when he was that mad and yelling so loud I actually had to hold the receiver away from my ear a couple of times, I mean, are you fucking kidding me? Seriously, Madeline, it’s a little hard to believe you when you say that you didn’t hear any of this.”

“I seriously didn’t. Are you OK? Is everything OK?”

“It’s fine, it’s fine. We talked again this morning. For a long time. That’s why I’m running so late and I can’t do this, I can’t do this right now. I can’t sit down on this spot on this couch and next thing I know some sort of thing has taken possession of me, hours of our lives have passed, and I realize that once again I have fallen into the conversational vortex that exists in this room! I do not have time for this today at all whatsoever.” She paused. She shifted just slightly from her previous position of being bashed against the arm of the sofa.

“Possibly, it’s already too late,” Madeline said.

“Nonsense,” said Claire.

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bottom photo: Brassai

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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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.

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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.

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Art: Gauguin

Savannah Arrives

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

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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.”

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“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.

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“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.”

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“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.

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*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.

Savannah

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

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Savannah

The first time Madeline ever saw Savannah, she was plunked in her sister’s lap at the one and only performance of John’s music group. Claire sat on the floor in the middle of the open room as the musicians set up, both arms bear-hugging Savannah as she rocked the little girl back and forth in exaggerated swings. And she was a little girl, too. Ten years old back then, and small for her age. She was all eyes – immense pools of deep blue that flashed out from behind chin-length brown hair that gave the very strong impression it wasn’t going to follow anyone’s orders no matter how hard they might try to maneuver it into place.

She exuded scrappiness, just like her mama and her sister; and whether this was something they had all learned cause of everything that life had thrown at them, or something rooted in their bones, it was certainly there. She looked like she should be a literary character in a series of books that generations of children would adore, or the star of some adventurous, clever, educational TV show.

Madeline didn’t see her again until the next summer, when John married Claire. Savannah was not much taller, but still managed to show signs of gangly, awkward early adolescence, her arms and legs getting in her way all the time, and little, high-up breasts poking out from her T-shirt. Once in a while she could be caught with a far-off look on her face, as if she were gazing way, way into the future. Other times, she was a little girl; one of those legs would get in her way and she’d take a tumble and need her mama to carry her around for a while.

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Savannah didn’t make her annual trip to visit her mama the following year, so the next time she came for the summer, she was thirteen years old. If she stood up straight as a die, she would still not reach 5 feet; but in that two years, everything had changed. Instead of being all eyes and a hank of hair, she was all eyes…and absolutely enormous breasts. In an effort not to look like some cruel joke had situated a little girl’s head atop a very-much grown woman’s body, she had begun wearing makeup and coloring her long, still-wild hair.

No one knew quite what to make of her when she first arrived that summer – whether they should talk to her just the same as always or treat her like the entirely different creature that she looked to be. But other than spending sizable amounts of time trying to straighten out and generally tame her long mane, she proved very much the same.

At least that’s what everybody thought at first.

She spent pretty near all day sitting on the sofa watching hour after hour of TV shows about movie stars. Once in a while, she’d walk to the store a few blocks away to get herself a cold drink, or a packet of gummy bears. Her favorite color was orange, followed by red, then yellow then green. Madeline teased her, saying that they didn’t have different flavors at all, just different colors. Then Savannah would make Madeline test her by giving her different colors with her eyes closed, which she could always make out, and then say Ha Ha, so there.

It seemed like every time she’d walk to the store, she’d come back home and spend a whole lot more time on her phone. She would sort of curl herself around it, like it was some precious, secret thing she was trying to protect, her eyes just a couple of inches from the little screen, thumbs flying, and her lips moving every so often.

The whole clan ended up living in Madeline’s house that summer – daughter Kate, son John, his wife Claire, and her baby sister Savannah. Everyone except Madeline was set to scatter to the four winds come the end of August. Madeline loved nothing so much as a house filled with family, and she drunk up their very presence like a hungry cat with a bowl of fresh warm cream. The place was a damn mess. John set up a bike fix-it shop right in the middle of the living room. Claire cooked all sorts of the most bizarre-smelling concoctions at all hours of the day and night. The TV blared non-stop with Savannah’s movie star channels. Kate practiced her fiddle in whatever room was empty. The household went for an entire summer without hearing those things that Madeline looked forward to the rest of the long year – the chirp of a cricket, the breezes ruffling the leaves on the ripe trees, the sounds of children playing long into the evening, giving you the sense that life does go on.

Madeline acted for all the world like every wrench set strewn across the living room floor, every pile of pots and pans, every gummy bear candy wrapper stuffed between couch cushions was a buried treasure. She got into the habit of doing everybody’s laundry, insisting that it was just as easy to toss theirs in as long as she was doing it, and way more efficient to do full loads, besides.

One afternoon, as Madeline took things out of the dryer, sorting, and folding, and humming a medley of tunes from West Side Story, she screamed out, “Claire! Claire, come here! Claire!!

From the sound of Madeline’s voice, Claire could not even imagine what catastrophe had come to pass. She hightailed it down the stairs and into the laundry room, where Madeline held a pair of black lace panties in her hand like it was a dead rat who carried the plague.

“Are these yours?”

Claire laughed. “No. Definitely not.”

“They aren’t Kate’s. I buy all of her underwear, so I can tell you this for a fact.”

“You buy all of her underwear? That’s weird.” Claire took them in her hand and flipped them over, revealing that the back side of the panties laced up, top to bottom, with a shocking pink ribbon.

“Shit,” said Claire.

“Claire, we gotta get that kid on birth control.”

“Shit.”

“NOW. Right now, we have to.”

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Middle and bottom photos: Jock Sturges

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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A Dinner

Oops, I missed last Friday due to connectivity issues in Tulum, Mexico (!!).  Here, then, is the third installment from the “September” section of my novel PUSHING THE RIVER.  Watch for the fourth next Friday!

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A Dinner

“Now, exactly what is our role here, Madeline?” Auggie was barely able to contain his delight. “What do you need from us?”

After the walk with Ellie, Madeline’s renewed burst of enthusiasm for the prospect of Living in the Moment manifest in the form of shooting off a text to Dan: “Hey, no idea what you’re up to this evening, but having some friends over for dinner. Join us later if you’re free. I made pie.” He had texted back that he’d love to come by, but didn’t want to infringe on her time with good friends. He suggested he stop by around eight-thirty.

“Auggie, you’re being weird,” Madeline said.

“No, no. I’m serious. We want to be there for you. We just need to know what our role is.” Auggie radiated a decidedly boyish quality, in the best sense. And in his unbridled enthusiasm for the task at hand, he was adorable. Beth nearly always found him adorable, and made this obvious in frequent, glowingly loving glances at him. Across the dinner table from Madeline, the two of them radiated exuberance, good will and love. It delighted Madeline, and made her misty, and wistful, and, as her son would have said when he was a little boy, sickenated.

Auggie continued: “I mean, are we chaperones here? Do you want us to stick around until after he leaves? We would love to do that for you.” He put his arm around Beth, and pulled her head over to lean against his own. “Wouldn’t we, babe? Chaperones!” He caught Beth mid-sip with her wine, and as she gurgled an assent into her glass, he said, “Or wait. Do I have the wrong idea here? Maybe you want us to leave right away! Maybe you’re dying to be alone with him! Maybe the whole ‘why don’t you come over while I have friends here thing’ is just a ruse to make it seem innocent.” Beth could barely get her wine glass safely onto the table, she was laughing so hard.

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“Auggie, seriously, don’t do anything one bit differently than if Dan wasn’t here. Really. Stay as long as you want to stay. Leave when you want to leave! Like always!! ”

“What about a sign? Maybe we should come up with a sign – two signs – one if you think it’s going well, and you want us to leave so the two of you can be alone; one if it’s not going so well, and you want us to stay.”

“It really doesn’t matter what I say, does it? You’re deep into your own thing here.”

F I N E,” Auggie said. “Mission aborted.”

“More pie, Auggie?”

“You betcha.”

By the time Dan tumbleweeded through the front door and into the dining room, Auggie and Bess had pushed their chairs back from the table in healthy respect of keeping a certain distance from the remaining rubble of pie. Auggie and Bess looked Dan up and down while Dan looked the tumult of plates up and down, and before fifteen minutes of interesting conversational tidbits had criss-crossed the dining table, Auggie turned squarely to face his wife and said, “Well, honey, we really need to get going.”

“What?!?” Madeline said, nearly before the words were fully out of his mouth. “Really?!?”

“Really. Come on, babe.” And with an incredible efficiency of movement, he grabbed Bess’ hand, pulled her up from her chair, and led her towards the front door while both of them exclaimed the virtues of the food and the wine and the company, until the door shut behind them and their continued words drifted into the evening air. On the other side of the door, the entire atmosphere inside the house shifted by the time Madeline took the twenty or so steps back to sit at the dining room table, side by side with Dan.  He gave a faint chuckle. “Nice folks.”

“The best.” Madeline said.

They sat facing the table laden with the evening’s detritus.  As if he had read the crusted plates like so many tea leaves, Dan said, “This house is so you.  You are everywhere.”

“Really?” Madeline retorted, more than a tad skeptically, as he had arrived less than a half hour before and seen only two rooms.  “How’s that?”

“It’s so clear what this house is.  It’s the place that you created, and have worked hard to protect – a haven to encircle all of the people you love.”

“Geez,” Madeline thought to herself.  “Just how much longer do I have to wait to fuck this guy?”  But what she said aloud was, “Huh.”

“There is love everywhere,” Dan said, still looking down at the plates.

“Maybe not quite yet,” she considered.  “But soon.  Very, very soon.”  The thought exhilarated her, thrilled her, yet also filled her with quiet apprehension.  She said in a pitch that was tauter and higher than usual. “Would you like a house tour?  Want to see the rest of the Haven of Love?”

Strolling the myriad of rooms, Dan remained decidedly quiet.  Madeline ran her fingers along walls and gestured with giddy abandon as she dug up tidbits of historical facts about the 100-year-old house, and recounted treasured memories of her thirty years within the confines of its walls.  Dan nodded once or twice.  He knit his brow now and again.

The house tour completed, Madeline plopped down beside Dan on the sofa, their thighs pressed together.  The arc of the evening – the deep pleasure of Auggie and Bess, the astonishment of Dan actually getting it about her house, the chance to tell its stories – had left her in woozy, buoyant spirits.  She sighed aloud and rested her head against Dan’s shoulder.  He reached his arm to encircle her, kneaded her shoulder, then withdrew it.

“Are you feeling it?  Are you as totally uncomfortable as I am?”

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For a split second Madeline thought he must be pulling her leg.  An attempt at a bit of ha-ha hipster ironic humor; but one quick look at his face persuaded her that this was not the case.  “What?” she said.

“You can’t tell me you’re not feeling the same.  How completely different this is from last night.  How awkward.”

“No…I…I’m so sorry that you’re feeling uncomfortable.”

“Last night just flowed.  Every minute.  Flow.”  Dan sat forward on the couch, leaning as if ready to spring.

“You look like you’re thinking pretty seriously about leaving,” Madeline said.

“I am.  Thinking about it.  This is just so…weird.  I’m not sure what I should do”

Something old, and very deep, within Madeline felt a profound shame.  She tamped down the instinct to apologize over and over, to do anything, to do everything, that might possibly make Dan feel better, like her, want to stay, want to hold her, want her.  She was also aware of a flash of rage, an intense desire to slap Dan’s flow-spouting face.  Inside, a part of her screamed, “Fuck you, you arrogant fuck!”  Alongside the shame, and the blind anger, the most profound feeling of all was a wish that something, just one thing, could be simple.  Clear.  Easy.  Known.

With swift and precise movement, Madeline pushed Dan backwards on the couch, threw her leg across his lap so she fully straddled him, and gripped his head between her two hands.  “Want to know what I think you should do?”  Madeline moved in, her lips, tongue, teeth showing all of the threat, and all of the promise, of a wild and starving animal.  She threw her head back, panting hard.  “Any questions?” she asked.

Taking Dan’s hand, she led him to the staircase.  With her back to him, Madeline ascended with measured, deliberate steps, resting their entangled fingers against her ass, with every intention that he pay keen attention to it.  She took her time lighting the two candles on her bedside table, her back still to Dan, waiting for the match to burn all the way down before she blew the slightest puff of air.  Standing behind her, Dan reached one hand out to caress her buttocks, took a step forward, and cupped her breast with his other hand.  They stood for a time, motionless, listening to one another’s breathing; and that marked the last instant of anticipation, or of anything languorous.  Madeline ground her ass into Dan’s pelvis, hard, and rocked it from side to side.  His fingers dug into the crotch of her jeans.

Clothing flew.  Hands could not explore fast enough, could not cover enough ground.  Lips, tongues, saliva were everywhere, all at once.  The air in the room thickened to a fecund hothouse from the blossoming of body parts and ooze of fluids.

Dan gripped her haunches and pulled her onto him, astride him as she had been on the couch.  Madeline ran her hand along his cock as she slid him inside her, and shut her eyes tight to block out any thought, any hint of any sensation, that was not the feeling of his cock reaching into her.   Dan seized her hand and enlaced his fingers with enough force that Madeline’s eyes snapped open.  Her first inclination was to gasp. She had never seen a look quite like the one on his face.  His impossibly blue eyes wide open, his body trembling, Dan looked right at her, right into her, with a hungry yearning that pronounced there would be no place for a single part of her to hide.  A sound arose from deep in her gut, a sound she was not even sure was her own.  And when that sound reached up through her body and spilled from her mouth, she was gone.

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A first draft of this chapter was originally posted in 2013, in three installments.