Excerpts From My Current Novel
“Be still,” was the call, the constant.
“Breathe deep,” was the close follow.
In a time when the world was racing, my mother saw something in slowness. Not the tortoise, headed in the same direction as everyone else, just at a slower velocity. She was a stump. A root. The ground itself.
I was, so I hear, the opposite. The story goes I was four, eager to mail a letter to Santa with my overstuffed list inside, when our cat Cheeto relieved himself unceremoniously on the wood floor. I was responsible even then. I scooped it up, flushed it down the toilet, took out the mop and bucket, and washed away the Cheeto residue. I also happened to miss the mail truck by about 30 seconds, and instead of waiting or throwing a tantrum like a normal child, I took off down the street at such a speed that my father, who was made of pure gangle, couldn’t catch me. Petrified I’d get struck by a car, or trip and acquaint myself with the pavement, my mom watched with mounting terror from the front porch. But I caught the truck. Family lore clocked me at upwards of 35 miles an hour.
It turns out my mother was also a liar. Not a sneaky one, not a cheat, but a weaver of yarns so big and complex they’d sometimes cause a mental knot tight enough that even she didn’t care to unravel it. Like a kink in a delicate chain necklace, they were heirlooms to be handed down as-is, caveat emptor, heir beware. She was at once the possessor of a previously webbed toe, the camp ex-girlfriend of Mick Jagger, and the crowned Queen of New Jersey, a title she still held, source unknown.
But I was her biggest tale tale, this firecracker of a girl all spark and speed, and yet bestowed with a counterweight of gravity, the ability to recognize that it was somehow my job to do what’s right.
I read a story once in a magazine with a stapled spine that talked about a curious bear cub that would rummage around in trash bins until it found, not food, but discarded toys and personal belongings. When it was found by the authorities it was wearing a boa and a bowler hat, its right wrist shoved through a cracked core of duck tape. I did not understand that bear, but I did think of it often as I fell asleep. What if he and I could change places? What if our souls somehow shot down from where they were stored beyond the stars, and found their way to the wrong bodies? He would have loved my dress-up drawers, my mother’s headscarf collection, the masks she wove and punched and layered from anything she could find, our own suburban Mardi Gras for the taking.
Because our ranch in the cul-de-sac at the end of the quietest street in the sleepiest town in the most unprodded corner of the country was short on many things: activities open beyond 9 p.m., food that didn’t involve white sandwich bread, flags that featured colors beyond red, white, and blue. Thankfully, my mother was a slow simmer, the most even keel cutting a line in a sea of doubtful, misplaced, manic people. But she was anything but boring. Her imagination had imagination. She was a world in and of herself.
The bear would have loved her. And I, it was clear from a young age, was meant for the wild.
“Be still,” the call came once more. She stroked my head, sweeping knotted bangs back into place, trying to lull me to sleep. It worked sometimes, not as often as either of us would like, and the other nights my legs felt like dynamite with too-short wicks.
“Breathe deep,” again, as though scripted. What would come next is what I was waiting for, that she’d lie down with me in a huff, eyes wide open, and tell me a tale so tall it would crack the ceiling into splinters. I’d lace my fingers through the holes of the afghan, touch a toe to whatever square inch of her was closest, and along we would go through parts unknown and worlds of our own making.
After the story–that night about an albatross named Aloysius who did the dishes in his britches eating knishes–my body would not slow.
“Listen closely, Chickadee,” she would say. “Find the quiet voice I know lives in you somewhere.”
“What if I don’t have a quiet voice, mama?”
“Everyone has a quiet voice.”
“Everything inside me feels loud,” I whispered, ashamed.
She said nothing for a long while, until she let out a strong, steady breath, and turned to me in the dark. “Let’s try something different.”
The clock said 9:13 p.m when we walked downstairs together, and she threw a pillow at my father’s sleeping form dwarfing the living room loveseat.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“How’s your breathing?” she replied. He took a steady drag on his inhaler.
“Manageable,” he answered.
“Be a peach and blow me up a mattress,” she yelled over her shoulder, holding my hand as we took the stairs down to the earthen basement. In the corner, underneath a pingpong table, next to a box of unused replacement ceiling tiles, and atop of a box of Mad Magazines circa 1982, my mother liberated a sheathed cylinder covered in a layer of dust that was substantial enough to hold fossil records.
“Here,” she said, thrusting it at my nine-year-old form.
“What is that?”
“Your new bedroom.”
Upstairs on the wooden deck in our backyard, we fumbled our way to a solid aluminum frame and the tent sprung to life. There were holes eaten into the sides—we’ll fix those–and dark patches of either blood or mold or both–don’t worry, just don’t lick it–and the smell was enough to ward off any other form of life. I had never seen anything better, not ever.
We heard my father coming, wheeze clomp wheeze, and my mother liberated the squeaky rubber mattress from his grasp so he could reup his albuterol. All the dust camped atop the forgotten equipment had settled unpleasantly in the villi of his lungs, but the mattress was sleep-worthy, and his daughter’s smile eclipsed the light of the moon above.
I tucked myself in that night, staring out the unzipped top flap of the triangular shelter.
“Be still,” I said to myself, a hush in the night, another voice added to the frogs and bugs and trees. “Breathe deep,” I whispered, and before I could think to repeat the missive, I was dreaming of things untamed.
He was walking through the woods when I first saw him. He plotted a well-worn path, a known-by-heart route through the pines and sparse green leaves, almost silent ambling on the needles. His body moved like it was meant to move, like he had been practicing straining those muscles and strengthening that bone for 41 years, which he had, right up until that moment when he raised his eyes and found mine.
In retrospect, I suppose I should have known something, been struck by something, divined a measure of our shared future from that initial, whimpering spark. But that is not what I remember. There were no thunderclaps, no exclamation points firing off in closed caption.
“You must be Dee,” were his first words to me, a hand extended in greeting that I gratefully accepted. His hands were rough, the etched creases in his palms a counterpoint to my obsessive moisturizing. Jed liked my skin smooth.
“And you must be Mitch.”
“The only one for miles.”
“Shouldn’t it be kilometers?”
“Old habits die hard,” he laughed. “Ruby and I are so glad you both are here.”
“Me too,” I replied, and took a deep breath I hoped seemed introspective. “It seems like it could get a little lonely.”
“Not as much as you’d expect.”
A loud splash punctuated his sentence, a balled-up Ruby careening into the lake at full speed.
“I can imagine she’d keep you busy,” I said. “Remind me how you two met?” I knew, of course, the whole story, but I didn’t know it from him.
“She infiltrated my home town and took me prisoner against my will. I was powerless to resist.”
“Sounds about right.”
Ruby had always been undeniable. Her strength of will was matched only by an influx of charm so potent that in college she had earned the nickname Ruby the Kid, a monicker she liked so much she had business cards made to pass out to potential suitors, future disasters, she’d say, at parties.
Theirs was a new pairing, relatively, which meant they had a few months of bliss to go before implosion. She had described Mitch to me over the phone as “a mountain man whose face should be carved on one,” and I saw what she meant. He had an aristocratic nose, a generous slope from forehead to top lip that on another face would have seemed ill fated, but matched with the sheer size of him—duck through doorways tall, with sound proportions—made him seem as though he could just as easily wear suits for a living as he could fell, carry, and dismember an entire tree.
“Ruby tells me you’re quite a dancer,” he offered mercifully.
“Mostly in the car, mostly with myself,” I managed, trailed by a nervous laugh. On the list of self descriptors, dancer was approximately 37th, beneath items like defender of lady bugs and frequent brusher of teeth. It was true I had been once, but in the same way way trash had once been something useful. I didn’t recognize it in myself any longer. “It’s been a long time.”
A thrill, the smallest one, baby-mouse-sized, bubbled up somewhere deep, but it was difficult to tell if it was the prospect of moving my limbs in that forgotten way, or from watching the way his moved away from me just now, as he spoke. “Post-dinner dance classes?” I asked.
“You’d be surprised what this place makes people remember.”
He walked away, and my eyes followed him, glued by curiosity to the small of his back. This was the man Ruby had chosen. I felt as though I knew why, beyond the obvious physical attributes. In my regular life, I had settled into the reality of my late 30s, walked around stunned by the force of an invisible sea of ‘ma’ams’ and ricocheting glances. But standing there on an island in the middle of a lake I had yet to dive into, in front of my best friend’s partner, for the first time since I had sloughed off my 20s so many years ago, I felt seen. An ache bloomed inside me. What it must be like to wake up to that every day,
The island was bigger than at first glance, a sweetly sloped mountain jutting out behind the flat plain on which the cabin was built. White pines, red oaks, and black walnuts gave way to stretches of mossy green on occasion, before falling away to steep cliffs that peered down on the water. Carved by glaciers eons ago, the lake seemed depthless and almost solid, except when punctuated by the splash of a mink cracking its next meal or the haunting echo of a loon searching for its mate.
While the others were making dinner—not your strong suit, babe, as Jed had said—I settled on a tall rock overlooking the water with a miles-long view of islands all around us, struggling and finally giving up on seeing any sign of human life beyond our own slice of land. I sipped a cold Molson, perched on the edge of a faded Adirondack chair, listening to Ruby and Jed and Mitch’s voices spill through the kitchen windows. They were making pasta from scratch. Cleaning up all that flour would be a nightmare.
Though in the flour’s defense, I generally thought cleaning up anything was a nightmare. Years ago, eight point eight to be exact, when Jed and I first fumbled our way together, I invited him over to my postage-stamp-sized apartment in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood for a proper adult meal. I was intrigued by Jed on first sight. Tall, but not too tall, wearing a designer suit in an era when I was forced to sew and resew holes in my two pairs of faded business casual pants, he swooped over to our table at a restaurant I was deeply aware was out of my depth in palate and in price. But I had a plan.
“How’s everything this evening?” he asked, an introduction, my opportunity to be proactive about lessening the bill.
“Terrible,” I lied. “I wish to see the manager.” I spoke like a deaccented Brit of the highest station, grappling for any sense of purchase. My dinner companion, a benign and bored coworker, sunk three inches into her seat, shoulders touching her ears, horrified at the break in social norms. But I was confident.
“Your wish is granted.” He dipped into a half bow. “Jed Jacobs, manager extraordinaire, at your service.”
I had a flash, a brief but explosive narrative vision, of a prettier me and a beguiled him, holding hands in nautical wear walking to a boat docked in Boston Harbor. My mousy hair was sun kissed, his arm flung around my shoulder, a tell tell bulge in his pocket, not manhood but the promise of matrimony.
“Well, Jed Jacobs,” I said the name like an accusation, buying some time to recover, and failing. “The food is terrible…ly good. Delightful. Compliments to the chef!” I actually kissed the pinch of my pointer finger and my thumb, throwing them up into the air for maximum mortification.
Against all odds, he laughed.
“I’ll let them know,” he said, and leaned in conspiratorially. “It will be a nice change of pace for them,” he spoke just to me.
“Normally we just get people trying to weasel their way out of the bill.”
His breath smelled good.
“Amateurs,” I replied, and sawed off a bite of my bouef en croute.
“Well if there’s anything else I can do for you ladies, please let me know. I hope you enjoy your meal.”
I ate the remainder of my measly gourmet portion while juggling mental calculations–if I paid the heating bill a few days late, returned the water filter I had purchased to evade death by lead poisoning from Boston’s oft-sung-about dirty water, if I consumed only saltines and peanut butter–perhaps I could recover from this rookie mistake.
When the bill came, I stared at it like a snake coiled to strike.
“Let’s get this over with,” said the coworker, Jane, a woman who closely resembled a serpent’s usual cuisine. I waited for the shock, the gasp, the eye roll. “You’re going to have to handle this.” She slid the leather billfold across the crisp, de-crumbed linen.
I opened it. The total–$367.98–was presented with a subtraction sign in front of it, and beneath it the total read $0.00. I turned it over, and clipped to the receipt was a business card—Jed Jacobs, Proprietor, punctuated by chicken scratch writing—Call me if I can take you out for terrible food sometime.
I invited him over instead, a week later, and with Jaques Pepin as my guide, abused the three pans in my arsenal. He walked in when the roux was burning, and stayed through the sunken souffle, and when he offered to help clean up he asked for rubber gloves I didn’t own before pushing me up against the kitchen wall, hips first.
“You’re an awful cook,” he whispered into my ear, a secret punctuated with a lick of his tongue on my connected lobe.
“You’re shit at cleaning up,” I countered.
He wasn’t tender, and I wasn’t gentle, and no love was made, but it was the start of us, and panting standing upright with the smell of over salted chicken all around us, we seemed to fit together.
The next morning, hungover and sleepless after he had left in the wee hours, I grabbed the closest clothes I could find. Shimmying into what I had worn the night before, justified, perhaps, because I had only worn it for an hour or two, I was halfway through the work day in my solitary cube when I caught sight of my back in the florescent-bathed bathroom mirror. All along my spine, the small of my back, the cup of my ass, were the flour imprints of Jed’s grasping hands, flashing last night’s activities across the fabric. I wore it proudly for the rest of the day, until I peeled it off and crawled gratefully in between my crumpled sheets.