Monthly Archives: January 2012
Just a word to fill you in and set up our next workshop. To everyone who couldn’t make it to the last meeting, we missed you! To all who came, thanks for sharing your work and your reactions to what we read.
Now for next week: if you are already working on something, keep going with it. If you’d like to have it discussed next week, you can post it to our new online site (Thanks, Elaine!), or email it to this list. It’s so much better if we can read it in advance. So please try to get it out by Monday evening.
For all who haven’t written something yet, here’s the suggested exercise for the week. Write a list of five-ten personal qualities or characteristics that are the opposite of your own. Then mentally “interview” a person who has those qualities about something that happened to him/her. The character’s response to your questions becomes the basis for a story. It can be written in first or third person, but it is all told from his point of view. Don’t struggle over this! It’s just away to move us out of our comfort zone of characterization and let us play with personalities of people very different from ourselves.
Finally, as always, try to bring something you have written. If you don’t have time to write, come anyway. The more people we have, the richer the experience of discussing each other’s work.
See you Tuesday evening.
“Seriously? I can’t believe no one, not a single person has commented on my last post.” Boyce mumbled to his cat, Victor, as he sat in front of his iMac looking at his facebook page. He scrolled down his regular newsfeed and then down the annoying side ticker. “Damn. I posted so many fantastic videos of me this morning, maybe I shouldn’t have put up so many at once.”
He clicked on his status update box hesitated a second before starting to type a new update. He stopped and scrolled down the barrage of posts on the ticker and hovered his icon over a photo of a cute puppy surrounded by cute puppy cupcakes that had gone viral which in just a few hours already had 47 comments like “Cute pupcakes“ and “These are too cute to eat.”
He paused mid keystroke and complained aloud to his sleeping cat. “I can’t believe how stupid someone must be to post up such insipid crap.” He had only typed in one word so far but the posts kept streaming, political commentaries from the other 98%, photos of cartoons with pithy sayings cobbled from web sites like “ Runi’s Quotes’” where “Every sentence is a gem and very beautiful,” and “No sound of clapping comes from only one hand,” had 90 shares. The stream gathered speed with far out news reports from Pan –African News and YouTube shares of cats just doing cat things with some one adding a bow or a heart or tears from blue eyed Siamese.
Bryce McLeod was a player in this town. He had been a rock and roll icon back in the 60’s. He thought back to his successes, “I was the person who created the Seattle Sound. There wouldn’t even be grunge without my first hit. I was doing this before The Wailers did “Louie Louie,” for god’s sake. I mean Hendrix copied my moves before he went to New York.” Boyce stared at the screen lost in the memories of his fabulous past.
The memories, which were partially true, had over the years taken on a fableistic hue. He had been a local celeb when he was a teenager and in his early 30’s played guitar in a number of local bands. He had numerous affairs that lasted for short spans, changing groupies as his music changed and then deadlocked.
Boyce had never worked in an office. He had never even applied for any day jobs. The life of the ordinary man was not for him. His luck had been favorable and with his talent and background he felt special. His last band “Easy Lies,” had major gigs in Europe a few years back and they had cut an album that brought in decent royalties each year.
Bryce sat in front of the screen lost in happy thoughts of his own fabulousness. Silhouetted on the sleeping screen his hair still had a punk rock flavor. He had his grey locks silvered at the same hair salon he had been going to for the past forty years. The Prada blue sunglasses gave him a retro cool look. He thought he looked like a better-looking Johnny Halliday, the French Rock Star from the 60’s, only handsomer and without a pock marked face.
He had looked the part of a rock star for decades. He was very skinny and could still wear his old mod style striped flares that he had bought on his first trip to London, where he had also acquired a slight British accent that you could still find traces of especially when he had a bit to much Glen Fiddich.
He was going to continue typing that status update but he hit the Home button instead. His page was awash in photos with dozens of comments and likes on every one else’s updates but there were still no comments on his last post.
He clicked back to his timeline to see his last post. He was looking great in his profile photo. The photos of him were in the thousands and so was his friends’ list. He had spent hours friending on facebook scouring his friends list of friends and sending them friends requests. He had no trouble in this regard because people were so impressed by his list of friends, his fantastic photos of himself and the bands he knew that people flocked to friend him.
He looked at his post from Saturday @ 1:52 am. There were no likes, comments or shares for the updates he had posted. He moaned aloud to Victor, “What am I chopped liver? What’s wrong with all these people? Are they that dull? Are they that lame? They should be following my every move. I am a total stud. Just look at that photo of me. If I had an ass I could be a white boy Bootylicious. I look awesome for my age. The chicks love me.” But he felt sick, lonely and utterly devastated.
Boyce clicked the home button. A new red square with the number 1 over the little world symbol stared at him. He scrolled over and clicked the notification screen dropped down. I minute ago Summer Holden commented on Bryce McLeod’s last post. Her photo in the corner was blurred. “Is that really you Boyce? You look great. I haven’t seen you since 1969. Oh wow! I can’t believe that you are on facebook. I can’t believe you look so good. I’m going to friend you so maybe we can get together for a drink.”
Boyce clicked on her photo, went to her profile and clicked on her photos. She had only posted up pictures of her with her dogs. He hated dogs and really detested people who loved dogs. But he clicked on +1add friend, anyway satisfied that at least someone had read his last post.
A home. If it really means what it ought to mean, it’s something you don’t give up on.
And in my family, it really means what it ought to mean.
It’s just another red brick, two-story, compact square house on the North Side. Well kept, but still modest. But it means everything my family worked and fought for.
My grandparents bought it when my dad was a kid. The whole “white flight” in the cities was underway. Good houses like that became really cheap for a while. We were the first black family on the block.
Now we’re the last. Between the gentrification thing in the 1990s and the housing bubble in the 2000s and all the foreclosures after that, it’s a white place again.
But they’re different white people than before. The previous white people here, they were working stiffs. Yeah some of them were racist, but they were straight up and honest about it. The new white people here, they say they’re into diversity and all that shit, but that just means they like Motown and Ice Cube. A real life young black man like me, who’s not a singer or rapper or athlete or drug dealer, they don’t know what to do with.
But the house. It’s THE thing, you see? The thing that made us. My grandparents called the house their own Promised Land. The family’s arrival. Out of slavery, then out of Jim Crow land, then out of the ghetto, finally into dignity and respect.
I’ve always lived there. I went to local colleges so I could stay there, and help take care of grandma and grandpa. Now they’re gone.
And my father’s gone now too. Cancer. Just last month.
We finally had the memorial this weekend. Took that long to get all the relatives to Chicago.
Just before the service, mother dropped a bombshell. Father’s gone and we’re all grown up; so there’s no need for her to stick around. She wants to go live with her sisters in Charleston.
The service was at the church where my grandfather, my father, and I had all been deacons. It celebrated everything father had done and stood for.
There were videos and PowerPoint slides showing his life from beginning to end; with all his favorite music, from jazz to spirituals. My sister and I spent more than a week putting it together. Everybody loved it. Almost all the snapshots and home movies were shot at the house.
And people talked.
About how he’d kept them away from drugs and promiscuity; helped them get out of abusive relationships; encouraged them to keep going when things seemed hopeless; introduced them to their current wives or husbands.
They kept talking at the reception afterwards. Ladies and gents dressed in the best of their Sunday best. Talking and eating and laughing. Mentioning the parts of my father that nobody mentioned during the service; the harsh, judgmental, passive-aggressive sides. How he’d only help out a young person if they deferred to his authority and never gave him any lip.
I started to tune out some of these voices. When you live with some of the people I lived with, you learned this skill early on. I love my whole family, understand that. But sometimes I just had to let their voices pass through my head without stopping.
That’s how I wound up ignoring everybody in the room except for my mother and her sisters at the other end of the reception hall. I couldn’t hear it perfectly, but I think she told them she was SO glad the ordeal was over. I thought she meant the ordeal of coping with his disease. But then she said there’d been times she just couldn’t take being mated for life to this ultimate goody two shoes. At least three times, I think I heard her say, she’d almost had affairs. Each time it would have been with one of his best friends. Her sisters just nodded and kept her talking. If only there’d been something, anything at all about him that was imperfect. She could hardly wait to get out of Ice Town and into a place where nobody knew her as the perfect deacon’s perfect wife, where she could treat herself to a buffet line of southern fried dark meat.
That was the second bombshell of the day. The third was when my brother, sister, and brother in law led me into the hallway. They’d decided, without even asking me, that they’d sell the house as soon as prices went back up. Until then they’ll rent it out. Which meant I had to get out.
Everything reliable in my life, everything that kept me rooted in one place, was gone or going.
And then she came in.
My ex-fiancee. I hadn’t seen her at the service. Hadn’t expected to see her either. Not after the breakup, which was probably my fault. She’d kept saying she didn’t need to get married now, or maybe ever. And kids? Not for her, probably ever. She wanted her career (civil engineering). She wanted to be free, or at least to feel free. She sure didn’t want the life I wanted, to raise the fourth generation of my family in the family home, kids who’d grow up nestled in the arms of a loving family and a caring church.
Because she didn’t want that life, I’d decided I didn’t want her.
Until she reappeared that day.
She came up from behind me, just as I’d returned to the reception hall from the hallway. She tapped me on the shoulder and made a bird cooing noise (a private joke between us.) I turned around. She stood there and focused her laser beam eyes on me and I melted.
She said she wasn’t at the service because she thought that should be for the people who’d really known my father.
She didn’t say, and didn’t have to, that my father hadn’t liked her. Between cries of pain while clutching the general area of his liver (nobody will ever know how exaggerated those displays of his were), he’d called her a selfish priss. A woman who refused to bring life into the world. Who wanted just to make money for herself. Contemptible. At least once he said these things in her presence.
So she wasn’t at the service. But she was here now.
I told her how I’d not just lost the man who’d been the rock of my life (even if he was more like a stubborn boulder sometimes). And how I’d also be losing the only home I’d ever known.
She said she understood. Then she said really, she really understood.
She said I was a good man. That I’d proved it, sacrificing much of my young life taking care of him, and of my grandparents before that.
She said I was a man any woman would be proud to know.
And she said that if I wanted her back in my life, she’d have me back.
She even suggested that, since my ties to this block and this city were over, I could follow her new job somewhere in the west.
And you know, I’ll probably do it.
The familial Great Migration, stalled for a few decades, was about to resume.
Andrea pulled into the covered parking lot of her apartment complex. She felt guilty about borrowing the car for the third time this week, so she stopped by a carwash on the way home and drove through. She should have vacuumed the inside, too (there seemed to be bits of popcorn or cat litter or Heaven-knows-what everywhere), but she didn’t want to get out of the car to do it. There had been hooligans hanging out by the vacuum and air island of the carwash. A couple of them were there, pretending to put air in their tires, but she knew they were waiting for her. “You’ll have to wait a little longer,” she imagined saying to them as she drove past and on to the street, the car dripping with the special no-rub wax rinse for which she had paid extra.
Having access to the car was important. Andrea didn’t have enough money or good enough credit to buy her own car, and she hated riding the bus – too many weirdos that wanted to follow you home or say inappropriate things to you while you were pressed to the window. Walking was even worse. Her brother used to say she was lazy, but she wasn’t really. She just didn’t like getting all sweaty or rushing around. Plus, it didn’t feel safe walking alone outside. Of course, if it was her time to go, there’s nothing she could do, but she’d rather die in a car crash than be murdered on a street corner by some criminal.
Thus – the carwash. The trouble was, Maura would probably not even notice her car was clean. And Andrea had left the apartment anyway, not because she especially needed more bathroom tissue or plastic sandwich bags or cream cheese, but because the apartment felt too small when Maura’s friend Rebecca was over. So it was kind of Maura’s fault that Andrea had to borrow the car in the first place.
When Andrea and Maura had first decided to be roommates they had been friends. Maybe not exactly friends, but more friendly than they were now. Andrea and Maura had known each other since they were small children. Maura’s father was the pastor at the church Andrea had grown up in, they had been in the same ballet class together and had both sung in the church choir. Their families were close and Maura had seemed like a safe person to live with. Andrea was doing clerical work at a hospital and didn’t make enough money to have a place to herself. Andrea’s mother had suggested the housing arrangement to Maura’s father, and Maura had seemed okay about it. They had even hosted a young person’s bible study meeting together when they first moved into the apartment. Actually, it had been Andrea’s idea, and Maura didn’t say no, but afterwards Andrea got the strong impression that there would be no more bible study meetings in their apartment. And then there was Maura’s friend, Rebecca – she was pretty much the opposite of bible study meetings. Rebecca smoked cigarettes and swore like a sailor and her t-shirts were always stretched tight over her impressive bust line. She owned several pairs of long earrings festooned with feathers. Rebecca pretty much ignored Andrea when she was over and Andrea did the same.
Maura and Rebecca would sit around for hours talking politics. They never tired of it. They’d start off on the corporate welfare state, move on to the military industrial complex, continue with unfair prejudice against gays and minorities. It’s possible they were right, Andrea didn’t pretend to know the first thing about it, but they were so annoying. So arrogant in their righteousness. Andrea was righteous too, but not arrogant, not in anybody’s face. She didn’t go over to other people’s houses and assume that everyone agreed with her point of view. In fact, she knew that most people didn’t agree with her at all. Most of the people she worked with at the hospital didn’t go to church, didn’t believe in God, and were probably going to hell (which might be like getting stuck in a small kitchen with Maura and Rebecca talking about the latest election in some third world country). On the rare occasion that Andrea did find herself away from home, she said grace under her breath before meals and kept her thoughts to herself if someone took the Lord’s name in vain or worse. She couldn’t really save them, so it was no use trying.
Andrea eased the car into Maura’s parking space, turned off the motor, pulled her groceries from the passenger seat close to her body, and readied the keys, poking from her fist, to use as a weapon should there be any emergencies between the parking lot and the entrance to her apartment. She wished Maura would lobby for a parking space closer in. They had lived in this apartment for over a year, and surely Maura must have accrued some residential seniority that could result in a better parking space. So many steps between the car and the apartment. So many opportunities for attack, and she would feel winded in any case, by the time she lugged her spoils to the front door. Nothing for it but to get out of the car and start walking.
The journey was uneventful. The apartment manager had installed additional lighting at Andrea’s request. The request had been sent anonymously (Andrea didn’t want to seem needy or a problem tenant – particularly since she didn’t even have a car to park), and the covered parking area was exceptionally well-lit. She arrived at her front door fairly out-of-breath, however, since she rarely walked, or did any exercise, for that matter, except for her semi-weekly trek across the expanse of pavement in the carpark.
She untangled her keys from her fist and unlocked the door. She expected Maura and Rebecca to be going at it, on some political topic or another. Instead, Maura and Rebecca were going at it, but in a mouth-to-mouth kind of way. A French, over-the-top kind of way. A beyond-Andrea’s-wildest-dreams kind of way.
Andrea walked back out of the front door and shut it behind her. She didn’t really know what to do. Maura and Rebecca had been friends for quite a while, but Andrea had never imagined they were friends in that way. She stood there for a moment, clutching the bathroom tissue and the plastic sandwich bags and the cream cheese, and her brain stopped working. When her brain recommenced function, she could only think of all the rapists and murders who were probably prowling the carpark at this very moment. She opened the front door again and walked back in the apartment.
“Hiya,” Maura said. She and Rebecca were sitting side by side, no longer on top of each other, but still touching, shoulder to shoulder and elbow to elbow. Andrea walked into the bathroom. She didn’t know why she had gone there. It was a dumb place to go. She could put the bathroom tissue in the linen close, but then what. She peed. She washed her hands. She could walk out and then straight to her bedroom. But she hadn’t eaten since noon, and the only food she had with her was the cream cheese in the plastic shopping bag. She opened the bathroom door and walked into the kitchen. She pulled a bread bag off of a shelf and put two pieces of bread in the toaster. “Either of you want some toast?” she asked randomly, in a funny voice that sounded all off to her ears.
“I’d like some,” said Rebecca, “with jam if you’ve got any.”
Andrea couldn’t remember Rebecca every speaking to her directly. She put the first batch of toast on a plate. She carried it into the living room with a jar of orange marmalade. Then she went back into the kitchen and put two more slices of bread into the toaster.
Rebecca said, “Thanks, Andrea, this is great. Really hits the spot.”
When Andrea’s toast popped up she smeared it with cream cheese and took it into her bedroom. She turned on her television while she ate. Then she turned the television off. She couldn’t hear any conversation outside her room. No heated political discussion, no “other” noises either. She opened the door slowly, giving plenty of warning, and said, “Goodnight, you two.” And then she went to bed.
There were pictures everywhere. Taped to the wall, in piles on the bookshelves that lined the walls. Pictures of Victorian devils. Of clowns. Mermaids. Bears. Pictures of people at prayer or in terror, it was hard to tell. There were dusty bleached animal skulls hanging on the walls. She recognized two deer (one with a bullet hole through the forehead), one raccoon and one tiny skull mounted on a red silk board she thought might be a mouse. There were strings of beads hanging over the doorknobs. They draped over picture frames and around the lampshades. Dusty Wood beads. Shell beads, beads made from rolled up magazine paper, shellacked and strung on floss. There were jars filled with glittering glass beads. More photos. Of cats. Photos of ancestors. Owl, crow and robin feathers were crammed into the corners of old picture frames. Books. Books made of paper, cloth and leather. Books in pristine condition, books worn to shreds. Books dislikes and books adored. Radio. Baskets. Paintings. Dust. CDs. A heap of costume jewelry spilling out of an old cookie tin. Cheap stuff but with a few nice pieces worth a nickel or two. Postcards. Lacework. Toys. Still more photographs in shoeboxes, on tables and sticking out of books. Knitting. Dust. Paperwork. And that was just the front room.
Reilly did not know where to begin. The apartment had been locked up for three years and she had avoided taking inventory of her mother’s place since her death in 2007. She missed her too much. Reilly had inherited the three story 100-year-old building and had taken up residence in one of the larger units. She rented out the others with the exception of the one that had been her mothers. Her mother in later years had become a hoarder. Not one of the hoarders that kept rotten food, empty cat food cans or 6-foot-tall stacks of newspapers, but a hoarder of memories. Memories hoarded up into boxes, jars, cans and tins. Each paper, each bead, each book held a specific memory and during her mother’s last few years, Reilly had been told about each one. She could hardly move for memories.
She made her way through the room and went into the hall. Flipping on the light she was again assaulted by books, this time, her mother’s collection of religious books. She was not religious; she was hardly what you would call spiritual. She was curious. She wanted to know what the tenets of other people’s faith were and why they seemed to work for them. She had bibles of all sizes, shapes and denominations. There was a Tanakh, a Book of Mormon, a Quran, books of Buddhist teachings, a copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, books on Voo Doo, Hoo Doo, and dozens of yellowing pamphlets, scrolls, and comic books on faiths Riley had never heard of.
At age seven, Riley attended a Methodist church summer school with her best friend Elma. Elma lived upstairs and the two were inseparable. They played in the halls, roller skating inside when it rained, and rode their bikes outside when the weather allowed. They explored the neighborhood, up and down the alleys, rummaging through the tall grass in the vacant lots for bottles to take back to the corner store for nickels. Riley’s mother thought it would be good for her to get an idea about Christianity and know what church was. For three weeks in July Riley and Elma were dropped off every morning at the Merrywood Methodist Congregational Church, three blocks from the apartment. They learned about Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the Immaculate Conception, crucifixion and resurrection, angels and the Holy Ghost, Heaven and Hell and the land of Israel.
One day the children made pictures of Jesus based on several of the tales the teacher had read earlier that morning. Riley spent all afternoon coloring her Jesus picture. Her Jesus was inside the temple. She carefully drew the stone walls, coloring them blue. She drew two big windows looking out onto the street and put red curtains on them. She drew black bookshelves and drew books of every color in the 64-pack of crayons she was sharing with Elma. She drew a handsome curly haired black-eyed Jesus in a white robe with a bright red halo. She drew him with his hand up in the air pointing to the ceiling, which she has drawn in with the yellow green crayon. The teacher, a very nice young woman who was probably fresh out of high school and doing this as a summer job before going to college in the fall, took one look at the picture and shrieked. In addition to Jesus, Riley had drawn four little chairs and on each chair she drew a little brown bunny. Each bunny wore a little blue bow around its neck. She thought the teacher said Jesus and the rabbits.
Faith for Riley really never went past Jesus and the rabbits. Later that summer she got into trouble with one of the teachers when she said that Israel wasn’t a real place, that the Bible wasn’t real and that the stories were just like the fairytales that happened once upon a time. The teacher explained that yes, the Bible was true and that everything in it was true as well. And surely she knew Israel was real, didn’t she? Didn’t she ever hear about it on TV when her Mommy and Daddy watched the news? Riley thought for a minute and said, “Mom showed me Israel on our globe and said it was also called Palestine but it looked too small to be real. Besides, how can you have two countries in one place?” That was her last day at church school and Elma had to go alone. Elma moved later that year and Riley was left without a best friend.
After that, for several years her mother took her to churches, mosques, meeting rooms, synagogues, and meditation retreats. She did this, she said, in order to expose Riley to the truth that there is no one truth, that faith is not one size fits all and that no way is the only way.
Riley went into her old bedroom. She had moved her own things out years before her mother had died and it had been converted into a craft room. There were bins filled with yarn carefully packed in Ziploc bags, partially completed knitting projects, vases filled with knitting needles made from bamboo, aluminum, steel and even a few made from deer bone. Like the other rooms, along with the dust there were pictures everywhere, also patterns, instruction books on how to knit, sew, crochet, tat lace and design clothes. There were skeins of natural wool hand spun by her Auntie Annie Alice. She had a ranch on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, and would send her mother yarn every year.
She walked over to the closet and pulled the string to turn on the light. It was surprisingly empty, except for a few hangers and three empty shoeboxes. Then a scent caught her attention. She turned and looked around the closet, then looked up. Just below the ceiling, a few old braids of sweet grass tied with scraps of red yarn were tacked up on the wall. They still carried a hint of what was to Riley an indescribable, unforgettable scent, an elusive sense of sweetness that meant summer, playing outside, of going to pow-wows in Wyoming and watching her Shoshone cousins James, Beckie and Albert from the Wind River Reservation dance. In its scent were carried the strength and promise of beginnings, of dreams waiting to become reality. It was a powerful smell; maybe the best smell in the world.
For a few summers in her early teens, Riley and her mother made the drive from Seattle to Lander, Wyoming to visit her father’s family. Beginning from the time she was thirteen, once they made it past Spokane, her mother let Riley drive their battered 1965 Black Vista Cruiser station wagon. It was a behemoth of a car with three rows of red vinyl seats, but it held everything they would need for six weeks away from home, including their cat Chester, a 20-pound orange and white Maine Coon, who perched himself on the rear-facing back seat, and sneered at any cars who followed too close behind them.
Pow-wow summers, she called them. Sleeping outside every night, either in a teepee if it rained or under the stars if it was clear. They would make up new constellations with new stories. One was called “Auntie Annie Alice’s Vacuum Cleaner, whose job was to suck all the pollution from the skies. Another was called “Chester the Great”, named for the cat, and of course, there were several of a dirty joke nature with secret names to use around parents, like “Hot Dog Dave”, “Betty Box”, and “Superballs”. If any of the latter were said by one of the cousins while in the presence of any adult, say, in the store, eating a meal, or in the car, the kids would snort, choke and double over trying to not laugh themselves sick.
Riley loved hanging out with her cousins. The rules, which Riley had to admit were generally lax at home, were nearly invisible here. They smoked cigarettes and drank beer, if they could get it, or Cokes if they couldn’t. At first, they were allowed to drive the ancient red tractor called “Uncle Fartie” around on her aunt’s land, but that ended after they tipped it over while driving through an abandoned prairie dog village, so they consoled themselves by riding the horses up to the lake and go fishing, or if the horses were needed on the ranch, go out with the shepherd to see to the thirty Targhee sheep that made up Auntie Annie Alice’s flock.
She never said it out loud, she never mentioned it to her girl cousins or her mother, or her Auntie but for Riley those days and nights were charged with the secret dream of falling in love with a fancy-dancer or a rodeo rider. He would be her age, slim, handsome and a champion. He would fall in love with her from across the paddock, dance area, or Indian taco booth. It would be true love that would last forever. Riley had been raised to see that sort of romance as manufactured and she knew the logical reasons this was a bad way to start a relationship but still her teenage heart dreamed.
There had never been a real romance during those summers. Her cousins had lots of friends but they were all older and leery of the big city girl from Seattle. She had kissed one or two of them at parties but there was no more magic there than there was back home when she kissed that boy after a party at The Village Lanes Bowling Alley. She never met her fancy-dancer true love. Even now, she still had small, unspoken desire to see if there was something waiting for her on the pow-wow grounds, in the tall grasses, on the ranch. She knew the cousins were still on the reservation. Beckie taught at the elementary school , and both James and Albert were running Auntie Annie Alice’s ranch. She missed them. After years of seeing them only once every few years, she felt their absence, almost as keenly as she felt the loss of her mother. Maybe it was time for a visit.
An old wooden ironing board was set up in the center of her old room. A towel covered the board and on the towel was pinned the sleeve from a sweater her mother had been making before she died. One of a hundred cardigan sweaters her other had made over the decades she had lived in that apartment. It was covered with dust, like everything in the apartment, but would probably be salvageable after a good shake and a wash. She would look through the bins to see if the rest of the sweater was around and finish it. She rummaged around and found it in a plastic bag under the ironing board. Riley unpinned the sleeve and put it in the bag. Then she went back to the closet. She unpinned the sweetgrass and pressed it to her nose and breathed in its dusty richness. The promise was there. It tugged at her heart, brought tears to her eyes and excited her imagination. She laughed, turned out the light and left the room. She locked the apartment and went across the hall. She would come back tomorrow but first she had a call to make.
Discovery at 13
by Clark Humphrey
When I was 13, I desperately wanted several things.
I wanted someone to tell me how to actually have a girlfriend instead of just fantasizing about having one. (Even to this day, nobody is willing to tell me this. They want to change the subject, from what I want into what they want me to want.)
I wanted my own bedroom, something I would not get for another year.
I wanted it to be possible for a boy to be popular and respected in school without having to be a successful athlete.
I wanted it to be OK to be intelligent without being called, of all things, a “retard.”
I wanted it to be OK to like girls without being called, of all things, a “faggot.”
But most of all, I wanted to be anywhere, anywhere but the house I was in, on the piece of property it was on, in the stretch of sterile exurbia sometimes falsely referred to either as a ‘town’ or as ‘the country.’
I wanted to be where something was happening other than pre-sterilized Nothing. Where men and women struggled over larger stakes than the school board. Where there was more to do than golf, bowling, roller skating, going to bland churches to hear sermons about recycling, getting drunk, getting stoned, and getting (or getting someone) pregnant.
Where dining out meant more than the choice between the Arctic Circle Drive In and the pizza place and the pie place and the steak house at the golf course.
Where reading matter meant more than the used book store full of old Harlequins, and peeps at the girlie magazines at the supermarket.
Where live entertainment meant more than cover bands.
Where a wild night wasn’t just getting plastered and driving one’s beater Camaro into a ditch.
Where you could go to the movies without having to drive 10 miles into the next biggest town.
A place where maybe, just maybe, intelligence would be respected, perhaps even admired.
It’s not that I’d had a ‘bad’ childhood by the current definition of one. I always had a roof over my head and enough to eat. I was never sexually assaulted. I was bullied; but these days a kid getting bullied seems to matter only if it’s because the kid was gay.
(‘Gay’, by the way, was a concept I didn’t understand at all back then. Not even after reading the Time magazine cover story about ‘The Homosexual’ with a picture of a clean cut young man standing in the shadows in shame. I mean, in my little town the bully kids would call a boy a ‘faggot’ if he hung around with girls too much, as opposed to ‘real guys’ who only desired the company of other ‘real guys.’)
That year I found just such a someplace else.
A college town. A ‘cow college’ town, but a real town nonetheless.
Sidewalks. Walkable streets, with destinations worth walking to. Real stores. Real movie theatres. Even live theater. Bigtime college sports. At least one real book store.
A sense of a real place, a place in its own right, not just some subdivisions and hobby farms with narrow, under-maintained roads in between.
How I got there:
My family went on a car trip to California. (That trip should be its own story. But I immediately knew we were crossing over into a cruder place when I saw the first neon sign after the Ore./Cal. state line: NUDES AT NOON.
On the way back, we stopped at the adjoining homes of my grandmother and aunt. We stayed there for a couple of days. One house had a back yard and a furnished full basement and a sloped-ceiling top floor; the other had a study, a kitchen with multiple lazy susans, and a full back patio.
The street they were on had sidewalks! Shade trees! Just blocks from schools, stores, burger and pizza joints, a Fred Meyer, and a university campus full of handsome
And the sky there was full. Clouds seemed to stand straight on top of you, like a tall ceiling. On sunny sunsets, the off-white of the Coast Range mountains contrasted with the purple of the sky.
I was so in love with houses, the street, the neighborhood, and the whole vibe of being there.
My parents let me stick around at my grandmother’s for another week. One glorious week of not being bored! Where I could look and explore and be amazed and learn what being somewhere really could mean.
I later wound up living in this town, for two nonconsecutive years. Each of those years is its own story. There was no practical reason for me to be there, except that I liked it there.
I returned to that town only once, in 1997. But it remains as a locale for some of my more “homey” dreams. I imagine it would be a good place to go on a writing binge, away from my normal urban distractions, but still with walkable access to beer and burgers.
My actual childhood home, no, that wouldn’t be a retreat for me. That would be returning to the childhood prison. Where there was, and would be, nothing but household chores and boredom. Two miles (nowadays) from the nearest strip mall, two more miles to anything else.
But back to the past. I finally got to an actual city (this one) five years after that thirteenth year. When I did, I began to meet people who were absolutely certain that I must have had an idyllic upbringing, so close to nature and far from the evils of The City.
I continued to meet this attitude when I came to the UW, whose English department was essentially totally ruled by fake-Gary Snyder nature poets. Even in the journalism school, several kindly teachers and students wanted to plat a career course on my behalf that would have me working at, and eventually running, a nice little paper in a nice little town.
These people never understood why I always screamed at them.
When Veronica was nine she desperately wanted to become a Girl Scout. Actually, not a Girl Scout, she wanted to become a Brownie. They had beautiful brown uniforms – dresses with sashes and little matching berets. She wasn’t sure if Brownies sold cookies like the Girl Scouts did, but she associated them with treats, perhaps because of their evocative name.
They wore excellent, tall socks, with ribbons, or something ribbon-like, at the top. They were so put together, those fashionable Brownies. Not like Veronica, with her childish red tennis shoes and jeans all faded and threadbare at the knees.
Veronica was living with her grandparents at the time and had seen pictures of a cousin in Girl Scout get-up. She didn’t think the green outfit was as fetching as the Brownie uniform, but imagined that her cousin’s Scout membership would help convince her grandmother that she, Veronica, should be allowed some similar extracurricular activity. Her grandmother promised to talk it over with Veronica’s mom, who was currently in another state, looking at houses she and Veronica’s stepfather couldn’t afford.
Veronica’s stepfather, Harvey, was retired from the Merchant Marines. Five years ago he had swept Veronica’s mom off her feet with promises of fidelity and additional children. He was older and jealous and his mouth was full of wide, Michigander vowels. Veronica’s grandparents were worried about her mother’s choice in men. She couldn’t point to her first marriage as a success, that was for sure.
Harvey was usually on his best behavior when visiting Veronica’s grandparents, but he was an awkward mix of reserved and overly familiar. Her grandmother cringed visibly every time he addressed her as Mom. “Not possible for me to have a son only seven years younger than I am. Not just unlikely, not possible. The nerve of that guy!” She once asked Veronica’s mother if she couldn’t find any nice men her own age. Her mother’s face had turned white and she had left the room in anger, but later, Veronica noticed her mother looking at her stepfather differently. Sizing him up, maybe, wondering if she had agreed to this second marriage too soon. Perhaps thinking she had spent her cute shape and good teeth on someone who was already past his sell-by date. This is what Veronica imagined, in any case.
For her part, Veronica liked Harvey. He didn’t hug her or read to her or hold her on her lap the way she fantasized a real father would. The way her actual father had, before he faded away. But Harvey could build almost anything out of scrap wood and he liked the movie Paper Moon. Veronica was fearless around grown-ups and a pretty accomplished liar, and Harvey would promise that the two of them could go on the road together and rob people blind, just like in the movie. He said she had an A+ personality and could be president or maybe even go to the Merchant Marine Academy. Veronica thought maybe he’d stick up for her about the Brownie thing.
Veronica’s grandmother did finally broach the subject with Veronica’s mom, who apparently thought the whole idea of Scouting, or Brownies, or Campfire Girls, or whatever, to be too expensive and too much work. She already felt guilty about saddling her folks with Veronica (just for a little while, she told them), and didn’t want her mom having to drive Veronica all over town or deal with some busy-body, over-achiever mothers.
Veronica’s grandmother was, in fact, relieved to not have to track down some officious Brownie troop leader. She disliked door-to-door salesmen, even though her husband sold vacuum cleaners for a year or two when they were first married, and she had nightmares about accompanying Veronica on cookie-selling missions. But she felt bad when she saw how disappointed Veronica was, and told her not to worry, she’d think of something else.
A couple of weeks later, Veronica’s grandmother introduced her to Snowy Simpkins, Sunday school teacher and volunteer leader for the Gum Grove Presbyterian Primroses. “Just like Brownies!” Veronica’s grandmother whispered.
Not exactly like Brownies. Primroses met right after church on Sundays. Sunday school first, then church service, then Primrose meeting. They also had Wednesday after-school activity time, but Miss Simpkins told Veronica’s grandmother that she could skip that, at least for the first few months. Veronica’s grandmother said maybe, about the Wednesday meetings. Maybe later.
As a Primrose, you mostly had to learn bible verses, and you got to make pictures with glue and macaroni. There was no selling of cookies, no camp-outs, and no lovely brown uniforms. They had pink beanies and pink vests.
If you learned enough bible verses you got the pink beanie for free but the vest cost money. And eventually, when you got older, there was rumored to be a skirt involved, but none of the Primroses at Gum Grove Presbyterian were either old enough or rich enough to have the skirt. Veronica was sure the vest wasn’t going to be in her grandparents’ budget so she didn’t even ask. The pink beanie wasn’t very cute either. When Veronica stared at herself in the mirror with it perched on top of her head, she didn’t seem smarter, or prettier, or mysterious in any way.
The beanie reminded her of the damp church basement where the Primrose meetings were held, and when she looked at herself with the beanie on she could only imagine doing the kinds of things you did at those meetings. Like playing hangman with names of the disciples. Or singing the Apostles Creed to the tune of a Shawn Cassidy song. She couldn’t imagine a glamorous Brownie kind-of-life with that beanie on. She couldn’t tip her beanie at a jaunty angle like you could a beret. Beanies were stupid, she decided.
She stopped begging her grandmother to take her to the extra Wednesday Primrose meetings, and eventually pretended to be sick after church, every week. “More like a shrinking violet than a Primrose,” her grandfather teased. When she got accepted to the Merchant Marine Academy, people would stop describing her with the names of flowers. She might even change her name, she thought, to Jessie or Sandy or Tony. Something less floral.
She finally called Miss Simpkins and said she wasn’t coming to any more meetings. Maybe it wasn’t in her power to be a Brownie. But it was in her power to quit Primroses, and when she did, she experienced a tiny spark of something. Rebellion, maybe. Or pre-adolescent angst. Or that feeling you get when you decide you’re not willing to settle for the thing you don’t want. That was when it all started.
“When I was thirteen I desperately wanted to be a doctor like my father,” Irie whispered to the woman sitting beside her.
“I know, I know, you’ve told me that a thousand times.” Evelyn touched the younger woman’s face lightly. “But are you sure you want to go back there after so many years?”
“Oh shit, sorry. I always bring that up don’t I?” She took a sip of her coffee. “I just feel that I need to have a stronger connection with my childhood home. After all, I haven’t been back since I was thirteen.”
“Well, I think it’s a bit late to try and relive the past, don’t you think?” Outside the French door panes the sky was darkening. The Sound was still visible. The choppy waves created a virtual seasickness being so close to the isolated dock.
“It’s just, at my age, I just I need to find my roots. I need to find a part of myself that I left behind so long ago.” Irie hauled her bulky frame from the chair and stood looking out the rain splattered windows.” I guess I’m being a bit maudlin but going to Great-Aunt Esther’s funeral has made me a bit introspective. When I was young I was so idealistic. I had all those visions of greatness. I was going to save the world. Remember when we were all going to go off and join the Peace Corps like JFK wanted us to do, marry an equally idealistic man and raise fine children.” She sat back down dropping her considerable bulky frame into her favorite Stickley armchair.
“Hey girl you want to smoke some weed? I brought some with me.” Evelyn reached into her oversized purse, rummaged around and pulled out a little box, a pretty pale blue pipe and matching Bic lighter. “We’ll consider this a medical marijuana moment, shall we,” as she filled the pipe with her favorite herb of the week. It was named “HeadBand,” because when she smoked it she had deep, intense thoughts.
The sky outside was almost black, the heavy curtain of clouds obscuring any remnants of light. The waves disappeared replaced by the reflection of the two women in the rain speckled panes, softly illuminated by the soft orange glow of the two old fashioned kerosene lamps Irie had lit earlier.
The pale, sweet smelling smoke exhaled by the two women filled the small-enclosed porch. “I guess it is because my dad was almost unnaturally handsome in my eyes. He was so tall and had those beautiful grey eyes.”
“Oh Irie, but you are just blinded by what nonsense you want to remember. Me being your older cousin know a whole different Dr. Thomas Browne.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I never told you before because I didn’t want to blow your expectations.”
“You were always so naïve and sheltered growing up. Your mother was always acting the part of the sacrificing mother to protect you and of course to protect herself. She wanted a gentile life. She didn’t want any strife or discord. But you never knew anything about how life really was.” Evelyn looked over at the incredulous face and felt sorry for her. “It was your mother who kept up the front for your sake.”
“What exactly do you mean Evie? You know my father died right after my thirteenth birthday. My mother in my estimation was cold and calculating. It was my father who was warm and kind.”
“Little cuz, that’s so typical, a kind of reverse Oedipus Complex. Kill the mother and marry the father. I thought you were so much smarter than that.”
“Well cuz, if you are so smart you better tell me the real story. I’m thirsty after that pot. I’ll open some wine.” Irie pulled herself up from the chair, ambled into the adjoining kitchen, opened the refrigerator and took out a bottle of St. Michelle Riesling. She returned to the porch with the bottle, a corkscrew and two wine glasses set them down on the table and uncorked the wine.
As she was pouring, Evelyn said, “I don’t mean to hurt you but since you opened this particular can of worms you better know the truth before we go.”
“Wow, I can’t tell if this is going to be good or bad. Here, let’s toast to the truth.” They touched glasses lightly. Evelyn re-lit the pipe and passed it to Irie. The two cousins blanketed from the back by the warm lantern glow and the absence of light in the front, paused in reflection for a quiet moment.
Evelyn took a sip of wine, ”Your father, Irie, was a great man, yes. He was very handsome, very light-skinned and had beautiful grey eyes. When his family emigrated from Barbados they settled in Mississippi. Your father went to Meharry Medical School in Nashville and became a very respected surgeon. He married your mother and went back to the Shelby area to be a doctor to the poor farmers there. Your mother had fallen for his good looks and his sweet talking ways. I don’t want to diminish that aspect. He was a fine doctor and a great asset to that poor community and they loved him in return, literally.”
Irie sat up in her chair her eyes now open wide. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“What I’m saying is, when we go back for this funeral look closely at the people around you. You’re going to find quite a few people younger than you by at least thirteen years who look a lot like you.”
“What are you saying?
“I’m saying you are going to meet dozens of sisters and brothers light and dark skinned, with grey eyes. That’s how he died. A heart attack brought on by his prodigious program of impregnation.
When Irie stood up she knocked over her glass of wine, the reflection of her mouth, agape, filled one of the darkened windowpanes.
We met on Tuesday the 24th with stories in hand. We were: Karen, Clark, Nick, Elaine and Ruth. The others had previous commitments and our group is fine with that. Our goal for this meeting was to discuss the stories that we had written and sent to each other. The points of discussion were:
Better writing without knowing it, intention to push further, to set things up for something to be revealed, a detail fiend, take a true story and turn a lie around, a sketch filled in to a story, how to turn life into fiction, a story is about something that happens to someone, a compressed, pivotal moment.
Our next assignment is to make a list of qualities in a person which are the direct opposite of who you are and write something that happens to that person. Somewhere in the story is the phrase—and then she came in—.
And now to the stories. they will be published each week.
The BBC Studio Writers Group had its first meeting on January 17, 2012. We had a great reception considering that snow loomed large that week. The first members of the group were: Tina, Karen, Clark, Sarah, Nick, Doug, Leslie, Elaine and led by Ruth Perlman.
The week before Ruth handed out copies of a short story “The Musical Brain,” by Cesar Aira, from The New Yorker December 5, 2011, that we were to read in order to have a common point to start our discussion of writing fiction. Some of the points we covered were: what jumps out or what we noticed, last sentences, change of tone or the epiphany and what elevates the story to a different plane.
In our first meeting we introduced ourselves. Ruth handed out:
Suggestions for Commenting Shared Writing
“The heart of Fiction Workshop is the reading and discussion of each other’s writing. Because our work is individual and meaningful, there are protocols we use when approaching a colleague’s story.
1. Things that jump out. We begin by pointing out the things we notice in the work. It could be an interesting word choice, an evocative description, a hilarious situation, a tender moment, etc.
2. Things we wonder about. These should be questions brought up by the work itself. Helpful questions might reflect something that you’d like to know more about, or curiosity about where the writer is going with an idea. They can also help pinpoint places where you are confused or not sure of what the author is trying to say.”
We also received— Suggestions for Receiving Comments on Your Writing
“The key to getting the greatest benefit from your colleagues’ comments is to LISTEN. It is not necessary to explain your intention; the point is for you to see where your intention may not be coming across. Please note that comments are only that; it is up to you whether or not you incorporate any suggestions or proposals into your work!”
Ruth then gave us a writing assignment that we started that night. We were to write a story based on the opening lines “When I was thirteen I desperately wanted… .” The story would be 2-3 pages. We started writing the last 10 minutes of the hour and a few of us read aloud what we had written. We were then told by Ruth that we were now writers. This statement alone gave us all hope about our ability to write some fiction, to “let go of the truth and go somewhere else.”