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.

George Brassaï - Girls at a Café

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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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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Quantum Leap

The bulk of my novel Pushing the River takes place within the confines of a house, over the course of four months.  As promised, I will be posting a chapter each Friday (oops) from the “September” section of the book.  Here is the first chapter:

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Quantum Leap

It was certainly not her first foray into the parallel universe of online dating. Sadly, it was quite far from it. Madeline had been divorced for more than ten years by this time, and had watched a string of relationships move from interest, to the first tingle of excitement, to the exhilaration of genuine possibility, to the frightening, heady, joyful moment when the roller coaster passes the peak of its climb and in that split second, there is no going back: momentum takes over; it is utterly and completely out of anyone’s control, because at this moment, there is love. There is real love.

And then there isn’t.

After a time, she would be back online, pouring over profiles, scrutinizing descriptions, gathering courage.

There were less than a handful of people in the “neighborhood bar,” each one sitting at a measured distance from the others, making the throbbing lights and disco music seem thoroughly pathetic. Even the bartender looked as if she would rather be somewhere else. Anywhere else.

A first glance around the room didn’t turn up anybody she thought resembled his online picture. Certainly nobody came close to what her daughter-in-law Marie had called The Underwear Model upon seeing his photo. “Oh! My! God! He’s an underwear model!”

“Do you know if there’s anybody here waiting for somebody? A guy?” she screamed at the bartender, leaning as far as she possibly could over the bar in order to be heard.

“Are you kidding?” The bartender retorted, “Everybody here is waiting for somebody.”

She gestured with her arm, waving her hand around the room in a need-I-say-more sort of way.

“I mean, not that I know of. You’re just gonna have to look.”

“Yeah. Thanks.”

And then she saw him. QuantamLeap. Standing in a dark shadow, pressed against the back wall as if pinned there, minutely nodding his head in time to the music in a good-soldier effort to not look as thoroughly uncomfortable as he clearly was. Off-white, baggy, mid-calf length shorts that could have passed for gangsta, could have passed for j. crew. Collared shirt.

(“Collared shirt?” she thought. “I did not see that coming.”) She had pictured: T-shirt. Definitely. Very faded. Possibly with the name of an early punk band, but more likely touting some esoteric, highly left-leaning thing. Noam Chomsky, maybe. But nope, collared shirt it was. And striped. (Striped?)

“Dan?” she yelled.

He was tall. 6’3”, maybe even 6’4”, so had to lean way, way over to get his ear in the general vicinity of her mouth. He nodded, minimally, in time to the music, as if he were not sure he wanted to acknowledge his identity to the person who had chosen this particular bar.

“Let’s get out of here,” she said. Knowing full well that he couldn’t hear a word, she made exaggerated pointing gestures toward the door.

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With the last beam of blue light evaporating across his arm, Dan emphatically pushed the bar door closed behind them. The instant the door was closed, they stood unmoving, still on the stoop, as an exhilaration of relief – to be outside, out of the blue light, out of the inescapable throb of long-forgotten music, out of the scene of utter desolate encroaching loneliness — washed over them.

Madeline said, “Oh my God, I am so sorry,” and laughed out loud. “Oh! My! God!”

There was something just a little goofy about him, the stoop of his shoulders, the enormity of his feet in the ultra-white gym shoes she later learned he had bought that day at Costco. A mortal after all. Thank God, she thought, or he would be too impossibly good looking.

She suggested they walk to a nearby place that she ardently wished she had remembered in the first place — a low-key homage to the 60’s that still sold tie-dyed shirts, incense and bumper stickers in a little shop adjoining the restaurant. It also boasted a lovely outdoor area, a giant screened-in porch strewn with twinkly lights that was heavenly on a summer night.

Though she was less than two miles from the house she had lived in for nearly 30 years, she got lost. Damp with fretful sweat that grabbed at her mauve silk blouse, she surreptitiously scrutinized him for any sign of frustration aimed at her. They had met in person less than fifteen minutes before, so she had no cache of information that could tell her whether his good-natured reserve was just that, or if, perhaps, he had already decided that these two particular people, him and her, would not be seeing one another for much longer on the evening of September 1, 2013. Or ever again.

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A version of this chapter was originally posted on 7/23/13 with these same pictures.

A Thousand Paper Cranes

OH BOY OH BOY OH BOY!!!  I have decided (thanks to the quiet suggestion of a friend) to return to writing my previously-abandoned novel Pushing the River.  I re-read the 150 completed pages.  I liked it.  I want to finish it. Here, then is a fresh, new excerpt!!

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For much of that fall, Madeline’s communications with Kate were limited to between three- and five-minute phone calls while Kate waited for the bus. Madeline would answer the phone with an exaggerated “Kate-eeeeeeeeeeeeee” and wait for Kate’s echoing “Mom-eeeeeeeeeee.” A rat-a-tat of rapid-fire bullet point life factoids would invariably be abruptly halted by a loud WHOOOOSSSHHHH that announced the bus’s arrival. Kate would attempt to shout something along the lines of “I gotta go!! Love you….” which trailed into an abrupt click. Not a lot of free time in the second year of medical school.

Kate was a self-described Christmas Elf. She loved the season – everything about it – and drank it all in with tremendous delight.

On the first morning Kate was home for her Christmas break, Madeline sat bolt upright and fully awake — as she did every morning — just before 7 am and tiptoed down to the kitchen. As she calculated how much coffee to make for Marie (who wouldn’t drink it) and herself and Kate, she was surprised to hear Kate cough from the back sun room.

She poked her head around the corner and said, “What are your doing up?”

“I always get up early. You know that,” Kate responded.

“Yeah, but I mean, what are you doing? You look like you’re doing something back there.”

“I’m making some flash cards.”

“Flash cards? For what? And by the way, how long have you been up? Without coffee, is my point.”

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“Since six. I figured I’d get up every morning at six and chip away at this. Didn’t want to take the time to make coffee. I knew you’d get up and make it right around now. And see? I’ve already gotten an hour of work done.”

“You always were an odd child.”

“I know.”

“Flash cards for what, her mother asked, knowing she may well be sorry,” Madeline said.

“For the medical boards. You know. The Boards.”

“Just how many cards are in that box, anyway?”

“A thousand,” Kate said.

“A thousand. One thousand. Are you actually planning to make a thousand flash cards?”

“I have another box.”

“If you were a different person that would be a really good joke.”

“Don’t you remember when I was an undergrad, and I used to study in the med library? Don’t you remember me describing to you when those med students were studying for their Boards? Jesus, that was terrifying! It scared the shit out me! I was trying to mind my own business and study, when all around me people were completely losing their shit, a little bit more, and a little bit more, every day. I remember this one guy just wandering around, shaking all over, just wandering. This other guy kept muttering to himself and twisting strands of his hair. And then chuckling! It was seriously like being in a zombie apocalypse.”

“So, the flash cards ward off the zombie-ism? Is that a word? Zombie-ism?”

“I’m hoping. I figured I’d get a jump on this over the holiday break.”

“Geez. Fun times. Ho Ho Ho.”

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“Besides, it gives me something to focus on, apart from the shit storm that’s going on right in my own living room,” Kate said as she snapped a blank card out of the box.

“Now now, you just got home last night. Don’t you think you might want to wait a little while, give yourself some time to experience the shit storm for yourself before you start getting all despondent?”

“Nope. Don’t you think I’ve been listening to you all fall? I think I’ve heard enough.”

“Well, you gotta admit: there was quite a kerfuffle of bus noise and generally high level of haste,” Madeline said.

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Didn’t some old guy from your generation say that?”

“Yeah. Some old guy did.” Madeline continued. “A thousand note cards. You know what that reminds me of?”

“Hmmm,” Said Kate, absent-mindedly.

“The thousand paper cranes,” Madeline said. When Kate was in her second year of college, she had gotten very ill. She left a quickly-scribbled post-it note on her dorm room door, announcing that she had left school, and went home. It was serious, and Kate believed – with good reason – that she may die.

When she and Madeline made a trip to Kate’s dorm room to gather some things, they walked in to the dazzling sight of one thousand origami paper cranes. Some had been hung together in long vertical strings suspended from the ceiling, while others were strung in banners, wing-to-wing, and hung from wall to wall. The sight was breathtaking, and magical.

The students on Kate’s floor of the dorm had gotten together, night after night, to fold cranes.  When the number reached one thousand, they filled Kate’s room with their gift that, according to Japanese legend, would bestow great health and long life to the recipient.

“They’re still in the basement, aren’t they?” Madeline asked. “Do you think they can work a second time?”

“Mom,” Kate said, with great gentleness, “this is way beyond paper cranes.”

origami-cranes

 

 

Know When to Walk Away

Picassos-Child-With-A-Dove

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