Tag: family

Tennis Racket Banjo and Other Unexpected Encounters

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I was living in a space that was approximately 4’ x 10’, with a ceiling of the usual height.  During the daytime, I would put my feet on the floor and gaze out the window.  At night, I put my legs up and my upper body down, rearranging the pillows so there would be one for my head.  I would close my eyes,  facing away from the windows, and sometimes I would sleep.  For the first few nights, I pulled the drapes closed, blocking out the lights from the enormous construction project as well as the blazingly-lit buildings that surrounded my location in all directions.  By the fourth night, I stopped closing the shades, finding the idea of the lights gleaming just behind my head to be strangely comforting, a presence I wanted to maintain.  Even with the sense of being immersed in a constructed reality – my own personal Truman Show – the lights of this Stepford world flickered just as prettily.

In a city known for its unreasonable hills, perennial fog, and enchanting Victorian architecture, my couch home existed in an area that lay completely outside the farthest bounds of expectation.  It was, in other words, completely flat, continually drenched in blinding, bright California sun, and so utterly brand new that the majority of the area was a cacophony of rebar and beams and gridwork.

I knew that I would awaken the following day well before the natural light of morning flooded the room.  Sometime between 5:30 and 6:30 am, a voice would pierce the pre-dawn by saying, simply, “I’m awake.”  This would be followed by complete silence – unusually complete, for the general layout of the area made for an absence of the routine sounds of early morning, such as birds chirping, dogs barking, a stirring of the natural world. Perhaps ten to fifteen minutes later, once again, “I’m awake.”  The tone was neutral, not pressed, or irritated, or perplexed at the lack of response – simply a statement made into the dark void.  Then silence once again.  Ten minutes later, when the voice returned, there was a difference.  Factors had been weighed.  Conclusions had been drawn.

Unable to reconcile the possibility that the voice may have been heard, but not responded to, the conclusion was that the voice must not have been heard in the first place.  Thus, when the voice cried out again, it was outstandingly loud, and crisply clear, and delivered in the slow, exaggerated way that we often speak to people who are hard of hearing, or have a different native language, or whom we are openly dissing by acting like they are total cretins.  “I AM AWAKE.  I AM READY TO GET OUT OF MY BED.”

The brand new fake wood floors muffle every iota of sound.  There are no footsteps, no shuffling scraping warnings.

A moment later, I open my eyes.  A very small person stands two feet from my face.  He holds a spray bottle in his mouth, his lips closed around the nozzle while the bottle hangs down.

“You’re starting with the saxophone today, I see,” I say to him.

“Saxophone first.  Then tennis racket banjo.”

“What song are you playing?”  I ask him.

“Bump.”  He says.  “After that: Chick Habit.”

And with the naming of his two favorite songs from his most favorite band – a Chicago Punk Marching Band – my day with my 2-year-old grandson begins.

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Boat (new flash fiction)

chris.schenkelWhile we were in California, my aunt and uncle took us out on their boat to fish for yellowtail.  The grown-ups talked about this for DAYS beforehand —  how we were going out into the open ocean, on our very own boat.  They would look at one another every so often and shout out “Yellowtail!” which was invariably followed by raucous laughter, back-slapping, and a big giant gulp from their glass.

When the much-vaunted day came, we set out for the place where their boat was docked. My aunt’s car was so big that the accumulated seven of us had no trouble whatsoever fitting in, and the three kids and one adult still bounced around the back seat with tons of space to spare.  It was like being in a room in someone’s house that up and moved from place to place. Riding in it didn’t feel like any car I’d ever been in.  Usually, when you drove over a bump, you’d feel a bump.  In this behemoth, when you went over a bump, the entire car seemed to take it personally, and became intent on minimizing the blow by rolling from side to side a whole lot of times instead of just hitting the bump and getting it over with.  When I looked over at my brother, the freckles across his nose had taken on a greenish tinge.

The seats were made out of a weird material that felt slippery and a little greasy all at the same time.  I couldn’t stop running my index finger back and forth across the seat beside me.  My mother turned around from her spot in the middle of the front seat and caught me doing this.  “It’s a brand new synthetic!” she chirped.  “It’ll last forever!” Being four years old, I heard it as “SIN-thetic.”  And since I had a limited but wholly terrifying idea of “sin,” and since my mother seemed unreasonably gleeful about the whole car upholstery topic, I thought I better not say any more.

When we climbed on to the actual boat, the adults were in such unfettered good spirits that I felt immediately suspicious and bewildered and like I’d been invited to some party that was celebrating something I couldn’t understand.  It turned out that you have to spend a whole lot of time on a boat, doing one thing and another that was also incomprehensible to me, way before the boat ever moves away from its place at the dock.  But that whole time, the boat sits in the ocean heaving up and down and back and forth.  Somebody decided that we children would be more comfortable “below;” so we – my aunt and the baby, my brother, and me — were relegated to the little enclosed room below the part of the boat that was outside and open to the air.  The minute the door closed behind us, my brother did a quick look around, spotted a tiny little bench alongside a tiny little table, curled up, and went immediately to sleep.

I didn’t know what to do – where to sit, or stand, or look at, or anything.  My aunt was holding the baby and cooing at her.  That baby looked right at me, staring a hole.  And without so much as a fuss or wiggle or even slight change of expression, she just opened up her mouth and spewed a gigantic amount of puke that ran all the way down her body and my aunt’s as well.

My aunt had a mess on her hands, and she got very wrapped up in wiping at the baby and herself with whatever she found at hand, all the while cooing and comforting her.  Then the baby upchucked again.

I looked at my shoes.  Partly because I still couldn’t figure out what to do, and partly because I thought the puke probably splattered onto them; and I was very proud of my saddle shoes.

What the heck were my parents up to?  I stared at the door to make sure I’d see them coming, whenever they did.

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Painting are by: Chris Schenkel (top) and Alex Scott.  Chris and Alex participate in Chicago’s Arts of Life program. “Arts of Life advances the creative arts community by providing artists with intellectual and developmental disabilities a collective space to expand their practice and strengthen their leadership.”

How I Met Anne

Anne bounded through the door of the second-grade classroom like the Connecticut-bred thoroughbred that she’d been born. A giant-eyed toddler moppet trailed well after her, a baby bottle filled with Pepto Bismol-pink liquid gripped between her teeth as she strangled a blankie with both hands.

“I’m a little early!” Anne announced to the room in general, raising her arm as if to hail a cab.

“I hope that’s OK!” Only after she said this did her eyes cast around to land on the two people – the teacher and me – who stood at the front of the classroom.

“That’s ok, we were just finishing up. I think,” I said. She saw that my eyes had been drawn to the freakish pink inside the bottle.

“Strawberry Quik!” she said. “It’s the only way I can get her to drink any milk!”

She was loud. Every sentence had an exclamation point at the end. She wore Doc Martens and a long skirt on an airless, sweltering summer day. I liked her immediately. Even before she parted her lips into a mischievous smile and belly-laughed.

“Do you have a kid in this class?” she asked me. “Any chance it’s a boy? My son’s gonna be in this class!” Before I could answer, she laughed again. “Or am I talking to the wrong person? Which one of you is the teacher and which one is the other parent?”

I introduced myself. I always introduce myself as “Barbara.” I don’t believe Anne ever called me “Barbara.” Not even once.

“OK, Barb! Great to meet you!” she said. “So you must be Ms. Mahoney,” she announced to the teacher. “Hey, Barb, if you have time, is there any chance you could keep an eye on the baby while I talk to Ms. Mahoney? She’s kind of at that age…”

Until then, I had been under the impression that Anne was oblivious to her daughter’s careening destruction of every single thing in her path. But she wasn’t oblivious. She saw it all, and let it happen anyway.  Not out of neglect, but rather, by design.

2ndgrade.JPGAs 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!

Optimus

He sat on my lap, the curve of the back of his skull nestled right under the tip of my nose and reaching to my bottom lip. He rested his hands on my thighs, lightly, occasionally entwining his fingers together, or scratching, before resting them on my thighs again. My nose was buried deep in his impossibly soft wavy hair. I breathed it in. I wanted to do nothing but breathe it in for the rest of my life. I breathed a steamy vapor of exhale into his scalp. I could feel the warmth of it spread. The damp. I thought the feeling might bother him, might make him unconsciously move away. I slowly, silently adjusted so my nose, my breathing, would not be quite so hotly released onto him. He immediately adjusted his own head, so that my nose was once again swallowed in his hair, my warm breath pouring in. He leaned into it just a bit harder.

Every so often, he would remark on some plot point of the show we watched. “That’s because when Optimus Prime goes back in time, he becomes Optimus Primus.”

“Really?” I would remark. “Optimus Primus.”

“Exactly,” he would say.

Rescue Bots. His latest four-and-a-half-year-old fascination. A show about a family of Transformers forever needing to save feckless humans from plight and disaster. The whole world for him. For me, a chance to have our two bodies this close. To feel him dance the dance of the subtle movements that keep us touching.

“I’m ready, Mom,” my son said as he walked into the room. “Well, as ready as I’m ever going to be.”

I embraced my grandson, tightened my arms around his tiny frame, rocked him side to side. “You’ll have to tell me all about the rest of the show when we get back, OK?” I said to him.

I stood up, let myself sigh out loud. “I can’t tell you how much I don’t want to do this,” I said.

“I know,” my son replied.

We were heading to the memorial celebration for Anne, who had been one of my very best friends for many years. But that was a long time ago. That was before her son David jumped. And she never recovered.

I mean, who would?

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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:
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.

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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