Sunday, July 31, 2011
You know the moment, the one when something is over, but you won’t accept it. You say it was because the person had one too many bad things happen that day, or the stars were misaligned in the heavens (that darned Mercury has gone retrograde again), that this too shall pass if you just hang in there long enough—but you know, you know it’s really over. You know, when you look back, that was the moment it was over, even though it may have hung on with a death rattle for some period of time.
It was to have been a vacation, a time to relax, re-group, find each other in the solitude of the mountains, sequestered away in a tiny cabin lit by kerosene lantern and heated by a wood-burning stove. Nothing for miles around but the red-tailed hawks and ravens soaring overhead, ancient redwood trees piercing the sky, the breeze sighing through their boughs. Or the onyx sky at night studded with shining chips of light million of miles away.
She’d been bearish from problems at work. I’d been snappish and irritable trying to make our meager incomes stretch to cover our more opulent out-go. She refused to compromise. I stopped talking. We both knew we were being stupid, but mulishly held our ground. This might have been the moment, but it wasn’t.
Having that sixth sense about each other, I looked over my shoulder toward to kitchen doorway, sensing her presence. What I saw was an olive, impaled on a toothpick, being waved slowly back and forth. I giggled. “Are you extending an olive branch?” She nodded sheepishly, walked over, stood behind me, and wrapped her arms about me in her version of an apology. I melted into the familiarness of her. “Me too,” I whispered.
We agreed on a weekend away, to close up the cabin for the on-coming winter. It would be our last trip up for the summer. She had inherited the cabin when her parents died two years prior. It was full of childhood memories that made her eyes moisten with nostalgia. It was full of young adult memories of girlfriends brought there to be wooed, which made her smile rakishly. It was full of memories of three springs ago when she proposed to me in a sleeping bag on the deck under the redwood canopy.
The drive up the twisting mountain road was excruciating. She would tell you it was exhilarating. With the windows open and the radio blaring, she sang along in her off-key sort of way to whatever was “pop” at the time. My stomach lurched with each hairpin curve. I checked in the mirror on the flip side of the visor to see if I looked as green as I felt.
“Could we pull off for a moment? I feel ill,” I said.
“Nowhere to pull off, sweetie. Mountain on my side, steep cliff to the ocean on yours. C’mon, join me on the chorus.” She turned the volume up a notch. This might have been the moment, but it wasn’t.
We arrived at the cabin as the sun set between mountain peaks. It would be light enough for the next half hour to see our way clearly into the cabin, light the lanterns, gather bedding and reassemble it on the deck. A perfect night for sleeping under the stars.
She was quiet, perhaps lost in memories, as we moved about in concert with one another, opening windows, shaking out quilts, flicking at cobwebs with the feather duster. I fed crumpled paper into the belly of the stove and added handfuls of kindling while she brought in an armload of well-seasoned oak for the fire. I made several trips to the car bringing in pre-packed food for our dinner and breakfast. She dragged the old double-sized mattress out onto the deck. We did “domestic” rather well, I thought.
“I’m famished,” I said as she stoked the fire. I poured a Tupperware container of chicken vegetable soup into the big pot on top of the stove, and while it heated, sliced a loaf of French bread. She parceled out two helpings of tossed green salad into bowls, sliced and squeezed a lemon over the greens.
“Anything wrong?” I asked. She still hadn’t spoken.
“Hmm? Oh, no. No, just settling in,” she smiled warmly. “Soup’s on,” she said, ladling the fragrant concoction into pottery bowls liberated from the kitchen cupboard. I opened a bottle of Chardonnay, and poured us each a glass. “Love you,” she said, as we clicked glasses.
We ate in companionable silence while outside the frogs and crickets provided mood music for a dreamless sleep. After dinner, we wash, dried, and replaced the dishes. By the light of two lanterns we each claimed our favorite overstuffed chair and sunk into the reading material we’d brought along—a novel with a truly twisted plot for me, and for her, an instruction pamphlet for assembling the battery-operated tot car she’d purchased for her niece’s birthday the next week.
“Hunh,” I muttered. We often shared comments while reading, turning a singular activity into something resembling parallel play.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“I didn’t see that coming,” I said. “This author is a master of plot twist.” I smiled appreciatively and continued reading.
“What the . . .” she sighed with frustration. I glanced over at her, raised my eyebrows in question. “Half of these directions are in Japanese. Why would they think I could read Japanese?” she huffed. “I give up.” She tossed the pamphlet onto the floor. “I’ll get the bedding for the mattress. You ready to turn in?” I nodded, placed a marker in my book, grabbed one of the lanterns, and took it out to the deck.
Elbows on the deck railing, I listened to the step-crunch of a deer making its way down the path toward the creek, and peered out into the darkness. I could see nothing beyond the small circle of light cast by the lantern. The world could have stopped just beyond that perimeter. The thought was both frightening and cozy.
I turned when I heard her step through the door, her arms loaded with blankets and pillows. Her chin held the top pillow in place, a disembodied head. Within the circumference of light, our eyes locked. Time stopped. The distance between us, not more than three yards, became a chasm. We neither smiled, nor frowned at this awareness. This was that moment.
“I’m never coming back here with you, am I?” I asked, although it was a statement. A chill that had nothing to do with the balmy night, passed through me.
“No,” she said, quietly, resignedly. “I’m sorry.”
Thursday, July 21, 2011
Do you remember when you first heard those words slip out of your mouth? You know the ones—the ones you swore you’d never say, the ones that would define you as “just like your mother.” Or gestures, manners of speech, inflections of voice, stride—anything that would cause you to say, “Oh my God, I’m channeling my mother.”
As a child, it was funny, endearing. As a teenager, nothing could be worse. As a young adult, it was cause for mirth and the raise of an eyebrow. As an oldster, missing my mother who died almost three years ago now, it brings nostalgia and a wish that I could share these musings with her.
After her death, my siblings and I had the task of going through her personal items, sorting, keeping, tossing, donating. If you’ve lost a parent, you know just what this is like. Mom collected things—Hummel statues, plastic containers, cards and letters (according to the boxes, I don’t think she ever threw any of them away). And she made notes in journals—cryptic entries that left us scratching our heads, furrowing our eyebrows, casting furtive looks at one another as we would read aloud from the pages. Long lists of names, not people she knew, just names. The temperature on different days. Words and phrases that caught her fancy. Numbers. Medical terms, without definition.
I was in my office the other day, between clients—someone had canceled with short notice, leaving me time to file a nail that had chipped earlier when I banged it on the bathroom counter—rifling through my bag to find an nail file, when I dislodged a miniature journal made of rice paper, bound with raffia, that has been a constant companion in my bag for however long I’ve had that bag. I keep the journal handy to jot down ideas for writing, capture snippets of conversations that amuse me, and to my astonishment, lists of words or phrases that I didn’t want to forget. Here’s a sampling:
There’s acute depression, and then not so cute depression; death, as a period to your life sentence; there’s no bottom to dumb; just a raggedy-ass guess; the smell of extinguished Jack-o-lanterns; she sat still as a slab of alabaster; and from a Facebook entry, “You used to be muchier. You’ve lost much of your muchiness.”
And lists of words:
Enwombed, oblique, lugubrious, transubstantiation, sartorial, oubliette, malodiferous, overmuch, pugugly.
And on one page, just sitting there all by itself:
Cucumber and ginger facial peal.
These are the sort of things I can “write off” as practical tools of a writer’s life, right? Defensible, right? You never know when one of those words or phrases will wind up in a story.
Or perhaps, I am, indeed, just my mother’s daughter after all.
Sunday, July 10, 2011
I woke in a cold sweat from a dream not long ago. When I'd worked my way back to consciousness, and was able to replay the dream in my head, I got a bad case of giggles. Bargaining with myself so I could get back to sleep, I promised to turn it into a short story in the morning. Hope you enjoy.
Jill turns off her printer and extracts the seven pages of her novel in progress, Live Wire, a story loosely based on growing up in a family of schizophrenics. Fiction allows her some emotional distance in a way that memoir doesn’t. She’s been working on the manuscript since the writer’s group, Friday Night Live—a collection of characters fit for a novel, all striving to be writers—began a year ago, and has promised herself she will have it ready to send to an editor before she turns sixty, which gives her exactly three weeks.
She stuffs the pages in her book bag, grabs her keys, wallet, and a bottle of Champagne that has been chilling in the refrigerator, and is out the door when Jonathan honks the horn of his Toyota in front of her house. She turns the key in the lock, and pats the door with affection. “Back soon,” she says. Jill has an odd relationship with her dilapidated little cottage. They are like an old married couple, used to each others ways, each becoming slightly more decrepit with age. Jill has never married and has no interest in partnering up just because she is getting old.
Jonathan is a forty-year-old bachelor who, if he had been born a woman, would have been described as Zaftig. As it is, pasty will have to suffice. He avoids the sun, as do many redheads, and avoids exercise, as do many men with mid-life paunch. He is the sole representative of the male gender in the writer’s group, and considers it an honor and a responsibility. Jonathan is working on a book called, “The Feminist Male.”
Every Friday, they rotate homes so no one will be overly burdened by the task of hosting. This week, they are on their way to April’s house. The last meeting was at Catherine’s, an upscale artisan cottage with skylights that allowed the light of the full moon to drench the dark walnut floors. Catherine is fifty, and writes Haiku, a style of poetry that leaves Jill scratching her head at the complexity of this simple form. Last week, Catherine’s butch lesbian lover, Hanna, served them grilled oysters on the half-shell, a cheese and fruit platter, and French bread.
Two weeks before that, they had met at Margie’s, a tract home in a noisy neighborhood. Margie’s husband, Tom, had failed miserably at keeping their four children contained upstairs for the two hour writer’s meeting, and they’d been interrupted frequently by requests for snacks, lost puzzles, books to be read, and questions that apparently only a mom could answer. Margie, forty, stocky, with curly brown hair that defied capture in the clip she continually adjusts, swore this was the last time they’d meet in her home, and apologized profusely on her way through the room to meet yet another child’s request. Margie writes children’s stories in her spare time.
“You have the address, right?” Jonathan says by way of greeting, as Jill slides into the passenger’s seat.
“Yeah, I spoke with April this afternoon. I can’t wait to see her new apartment.”
“God, I hope she’s not depressed,” Jonathan mumbles. “I never know what to say to women who are depressed—or who are having cramps,” he adds.
“Maybe that could be a chapter in you book,” Jill suggests.
Jonathan pulls up in front of a non-descript townhouse, in a non-descript segment of the city—neither old, nor new—and turns off the ignition. He shoots Jill a baleful look and says, “Well, let’s get this over with.”
April, in her mid-forties, recently divorced from a prominent orthodontist, has downsized from a multi-level, Frank Lloyd Wright home—with water features—in the hills, to a shared rental in the flatlands. She writes memoir, and has plenty of material, having lived the last ten years with an alcoholic sex addict. It is her new-found freedom and safe living space the writer’s group is celebrating this evening.
They knock on the door. Jill plasters a smile on her face and holds the Champagne in front of the peephole.
A stunning woman, sixty-ish, in a flowing hostess gown answers the door. Her quizzical expression is answered by Jonathan in a fit of over-gregariousness.
“Ah, you must be the roommate,” he smiles, and introduces himself and Jill. “We’re here for the . . . ” his voice trails off, as he notices a large gathering of people in the living room, none of whom appear to be Friday Night Live members.
“Surprise birthday party,” the woman completes his sentence. “I’m Francesca, please come in,” she says, and motions in them into the throng. “She isn’t here yet, but she’s due any minute.”
“Oh dear, we had no way of knowing,” Jill says. “There are two more of us coming. I hope we don’t ruin the surprise. I thought her birthday was in January,” Jill stammers, handing the hostess the Champagne.
“No, I’m pretty sure it’s tonight,” Francesca says. “Go on in and introduce yourselves around.” She takes the Champagne to the kitchen.
“It’s not so bad,” Jonathan says, looking around. “A little cramped, but do-able.”
“Good heavens, they’re all unpacked,” Jill notes. “It takes me weeks when I move. I wonder where Catherine and Margie are,” she says, glancing over her shoulder.
Francesca comes back over to them and says, “I’m a terrible hostess. I’m sorry, I don’t even know how you know her,” she smiles.
“We’re in her writer’s group, the one that meets every Friday night,” Jonathan explains.
“Oh, I didn’t even know she wrote. Just when you think you know someone . . .” she laughs merrily. “Excuse me,” she says, and leaves to answer another knock at the door.
Jill and Jonathan wander into the dining room. “Wow, look at this spread,” Jonathan says. He dips a jumbo shrimp into a tangy sauce and takes a bite. A parenthesis of catsup attaches itself to the corner of his mouth.
“Do you think we ought to call Catherine and Margie and see what’s holding them up?” Jill glances at her watch. Without waiting for a response, she opens her cell and dials Catherine’s number.
“Hey, where are you?” Catherine answers.
“We’re here,” Jill says, “where are you?”
“Out back,” Catherine replies. “We’ve been waiting for you. Did you remember the Champagne?”
Jill motions to Jonathan to follow her, and moves through the crowd toward the back patio. “Yes, I handed it to Francesca when we came in.”
“Who’s Francesca?” Catherine asks.
“April’s roommate. Didn’t you meet her?” Jill says, sliding the plate-glass door open and stepping onto the patio. “I don’t see you,” she says, scanning the outdoors crowd.
“I don’t see you either,” Catherine says, “and her roommate’s name is Fred. Where are you?”
Just then a cacophonous cry rises up from inside the condo. “Surprise!” People are yelling and clapping, noisemakers are being twirled about. Confetti is tossed in the air and rains down soundlessly.
“Happy Birthday,” Jonathan yells, carried away by the infectious energy of the crowd.
“Is that Jonathan?” Catherine asks. “Whose birthday is it?”
“April’s?” Jill says, suddenly unsure of anything. A fine layer of sweat breaks out over her skin and chills quickly in the night air.
“April, is it your birthday?” Catherine asks on the other end of the phone. The muffled answer is “No. Why?”
“Oh my God, Jonathan,” Jill says, poking him in the arm, “we’re in the wrong house.”
Saturday, July 2, 2011
Having returned from a summer trip back to my homeland of Iowa, my mind is awash with memories of family, the culture I grew up in--the values, the manners of speech. We visited the Amish General Store, resplendent with kerosene lanterns, washboards,handmade china cabinets,carved wooden clothespins, antique stoneware. We visited the cemetery where my ancestors are buried. Out of all these memories and touchstones, has come the following short story.
Granny talks to Jesus. They have lengthy conversations as if His Holy Presence was sittin’ his butt right down at the old kitchen table by the window.
“Lord, what am I going to do with that child?”
That child would be me, constructing a bypass through the white, fluffy serving of mashed potatoes so the rich, golden gravy meanders artfully through the mound before circling like a moat on the Melmac.
“I’ve tried ‘till I was blue in the face,” she answers.
I no longer look around for the source of sage advice. It’s at the place setting across from me, where the good china with the dainty blue flowers around the edges is laid, where the silverware all matches, where the only un-chipped glass in the house rests. Granny has taken, “Set a place at the table for our Lord,” to a whole new level. She’s concrete like that.
I was in diapers when I came to live with her. My Momma overtook her medication one time too many, and ‘Daddy’ is a word with no face attached. Grandpa Bean, named ‘cause he was long and narrow, fell over one day while picking up walnuts from the tree out front, and never woke up. Just Granny and I were left among the upright.
I guess Granny couldn’t see herself as a single parent at sixty, so she partnered up with Jesus. It wasn’t so bad, mostly. When I hit elementary school, Back to School Night was somewhat awkward.
“Jesus, will you just look at that science project!” Granny exclaimed as she strolled through my fifth grade classroom. Mrs. Tiddle raised her eyebrows like she does when one of the kids uses profanity in front of her, but she didn’t follow it by the extended throat-clearing noise she usually makes.
“Lord, let’s move on to the next room,” Granny muttered as she took my hand and pulled me along behind her. A long sigh, like a tire slowly going flat, escaped from Mrs. Tiddle's nose.
“Holy Mother of God,” she addressed Our Lady of the Cross, who was, I guess, sort of like a step-great-grandmother to me, if you’re following the lineage. We’d just approached my project, all laid out nice and neat, each collection of multi-colored, fuzzy bacteria and deathly looking mold in its own little Petri dish. There was one dish in which nothing had grown, next to a bottle of Lysol. My point was that the stuff works.
“You got all those germs from our house?” Granny asked, squinting low over the containers, wrinkling her nose at the explosion of spores. “Jesus, we’ve got some cleaning up to do.” I smiled at the thought of Grandpa Jesus with a mop and a pail of water sloshing around on the kitchen floor.
“If that don’t beat all,” Granny said, seemingly pleased. I guess she was referring to the little white ribbon stuck with tape to the summary of my project. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it was the blue ribbons that beat all. Didn’t want to ruin her day.