Category: novel writing

Heads Up

The first time I saw How the Grinch Stole Christmas was 1969, the same year that Tim was my first boyfriend. We watched it together, Tim and I, along with my brother’s other best friend Doug. My brother wasn’t there somehow, even though we were at my house.

We watched Grinch in a lightless room, something my family never did. It was believed that watching a bright screen with no other light in the room was reckless and hazardous, and could have tragic consequences, which remained vague and therefore almost mystical. Doug sat at one far end of sofa, Tim at the other. I curled up with my feet resting against Doug and my head in Tim’s lap. Every so often, he reached down and touched my hair.

The magnificently long-suffering, but loyal and philosophical dog Max. The clenched-hearted Grinch. The village of Who’s whose joy at their mutual sense of belonging transcends all evils. Snuggled between two Nice Boys, I felt safe and warm and protected and loved in a way that was precious and rare.

When the boys left and my parents said that They Had To Talk With Me, I was certain that I was gonna get clobbered for watching the television set in the dangerously dark room. A terrible wave of guilt shot through me, a pang at having been so lulled, so incautious.

“Never, ever put your head in a boy’s lap.”

This was so entirely unexpected, it took me a minute to even decipher the words. The meaning. And when I did, I was even more bewildered. “What?” I said.

“Your head was in Tim’s lap. That’s not something you can do. Ever.” One of them said while the other stood there in a rare display of rock-solid alliance.

“What?” I said again, looking from one to the other.

“It’s not fair. To the boy,” my mother said. “It’s too stimulating.”

My father bit his lip.

confusion

As I work on getting my third completed novel Out There, I have been playing around with several new ideas, and it’s possible that one has taken hold! I have long been intrigued by writing a full-length work that takes place within a time frame that is less than 24 hours (think Mrs. Dalloway, Ulysses, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, etc.). I have recently become intrigued by the possibility of telling the entire story in separate pieces of flash fiction — each of which would be entirely free standing, but all of which together would tell the tale. The piece above is the latest flash.

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We [wee microfiction]

When we got off the highway, the kids asked me if they could open the windows. When they were in their 20’s, and I was in my 50’s, I wondered if there would come a time when I would no longer think of them as The Kids. Now that they are both over thirty and have children of their own, I realize that they will always by my kids. Like they say in the song at the end of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (the animated one, narrated by the unparalled Boris Karloff; not that live action trash): “just as long as we have we.” That’s how long.

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painting by Andrew Wyeth

A Whirl of Snow, A Glint in the Moonlight

“How could this evening have taken such an ugly turn,” Madeline thought to herself. She loved Christmas, and even though she was not terribly religious and thought it kind of cheesy, caroling with her old church youth group struck her as a giant hoot.

It was much colder than usual for mid-December, and a snowstorm that had been predicted for later that night began hours before expected. Houses were decorated, lights twinkled everywhere, it was blustery and freezing and snowing furiously hard — to her mind, a picture-perfect backdrop. The cold and the fact that she didn’t sing very often made her light-headed and giddy.

Other than the fact that the hot chocolate was essentially lukewarm brown water, and that, as usual, a couple of the kids had poured a flask full of vodka into their cocoa and were using an inordinate amount of effort to not fall down, she was having a wildly good time. Singing. Christmas! A boyfriend!! They had been going together for nearly three months.

“Don’t fuck with me.” There was an edge in his voice she had not heard before.

“Of course I was talking to him. I’ve known him since I was, like, six years old.” The party. Deja vu. All over again.

“What were you saying to him?” Tim asked.

“What was I saying?”

“Yeah.”

“What was I saying? I don’t remember! I’ve been talking to everyone!” Madeline’s voice was taut with frustration.

And despite what she knew to be true, she was overtaken with the sense that she had done something very, very wrong. She must have. This was her boyfriend – her crazy-curly-haired, insanely-blue-eyed boyfriend –and he was clearly angry.

“Tim, I’m sorry. I can’t even remember what we were talking about. It wasn’t important.”

“Well, you sure looked fucking happy.”

“What?”

All of the other kids had trickled back into the church, leaving the two of them alone in the driving snow.

“Shit, I don’t have boots on,” she said. “Can we go in?”

“You don’t give a shit about me.”

He reached one hand into an inside coat pocket, and pulled something out she strained to see. The moon — or maybe it was one of the streetlights that flooded the church parking lot and lit up the whirling snowflakes — glinted off the object in Tim’s right hand. It was a razor blade, a very old, very rusty razor blade.

Before she could react, before she had time to consider being afraid, Tim had spun on his heels and was loping through the shin-deep snow, the long fringe of his buckskin jacket flying everywhere.  A final flash of metal and moon. His arm fully outstretched. The silhouette of his back quickly vanishing against the mad snowflakes and the black winter sky. She ran after him, ten or twelve steps perhaps, before her feet were thoroughly soaked and freezing, and there was no sign of him at all.

She gripped the edges of the stainless steel sink in her kitchen, not sure whether she would vomit. But when her mother asked her how the evening had been, she said, “Fine. Fun.”

That was as much of an answer as her parents would expect from their fourteen-year-old daughter, and they beamed widely at her as she brushed past them, not noticing that she clutched her stomach with white-knuckled fingers as she climbed the stairs to her bed.

ygritte

Jon-Snow-in-snow-345198

As I work on getting my third completed novel Out There, I have been playing around with several new ideas, and it’s possible that one has taken hold! I have long been intrigued by writing a full-length work that takes place within a time frame that is less than 24 hours (think Mrs. Dalloway, Ulysses, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, etc.). I have recently become intrigued by the possibility of telling the entire story in separate pieces of flash fiction — each of which would be entirely free standing, but all of which together would tell the tale. The piece above is the latest flash.

hope you get a kick out of the photos…

First Party

It all began with that party. The first one she had ever been to, well, a party that was anything like that one. She didn’t even know the girl– the one whose parents were away that night– but she knew that Samantha had legendary status somehow. For Madeline, it was a rare chance to be out with her new boyfriend– her first– without any grown-ups around. They held hands. They wandered from one dark candle-lit room to the next in the little house with no adults. Intoxicated, awed, and tamping down her trepidation all at once, Madeline thought to herself: so this is what people do, when they can do whatever they like.

She thought she may faint when Tim introduced her to Chad Howe, whose grandfather had founded a military academy. Chad had parlayed that heritage, together with his skinny-boy looks, Buddy Holly horn rims, and shockingly deep, authoritative voice into a high school persona that shot him into the stratosphere of Hippies Who Mattered. It felt like Chad looked straight into her soul as he said a quick hello before helping his girlfriend – who had a plaster cast from her toes to her mid-thigh – into the back of a friend’s van. He ceremoniously closed the door, leaving a number of hangers-on standing around, staring at the ground.

Oh my god, Madeline thought: He’s having sex in that van! I am thirteen years old, and I am at a party where Chad Howe is fucking his girlfriend in a van! How totally cool is that?!

pop

Tim wrapped his arm around her shoulder and whispered in her ear, “I’ll be right back. Gonna go talk to a friend.”

“Oh, I’ll go with you,” Madeline said. “Want me to?”

“Nah, something I got to talk to him about. Be right back.”

The time that Tim was gone blurred. Samantha sitting in an old arm chair, by herself in a dark corner, head hanging down so her long, deep brunette waves fell completely across her face, nodding ever so slightly in time to the music. Madeline wondered if Samantha was ok, thought perhaps she should ask her, but then got worried that she might be bothering her, interrupting something Madeline didn’t understand. Plumes of incense twirled madly whenever someone moved. A guy wore round blue sunglasses in a night black house.

When Tim wandered back beside her, he was different. Woozy-seeming. He chuckled a little, to himself, and mumbled something she couldn’t understand.

“Sorry, what?” she asked him.

“What the hell were you doing talking to that guy?”

“What guy?” she said.

“Don’t fuck with me. You were definitely talking to him.” Tim held up his hand, his palm facing her. In the dark of the room, it was hard for Madeline to tell what she was looking at. A circle. A perfect circle, faintly reddish-brown, traced the periphery of his entire palm. “It’s from a candle. I put my hand right on the candle and held it there.”

“What?” Madeline said, grabbing his hand to look at it more closely.

“I did it to prove my love for you,” Tim said.

“Hey, is there somebody here named Madeline?” said a guy who was standing at the front door.

“Your dad’s here. To take you home, I guess.”

MontereyPopFestivalNC002

As I work on getting my third completed novel Out There, I am playing around with several new ideas — such as the one above.  Perhaps one or more of them will come together into the next long[er] work.  Stay tuned!

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.

mQThT

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:
conversational vortex

“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.

Perfect_Family

Not Safe

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

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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