Inside Nox. (Photo from the Democrat and Chronicle.)
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Let Me Tell You a Story

Hey there! What are you doing on Monday night, around 7:30? If you’re in the Rochester/Finger Lakes area, you should definitely come down to Nox, where I’ll be reading a story from Copper and Stone. All the details are here, and the Facebook event is here.

Inside Nox. (Photo from the Democrat and Chronicle.)

Inside Nox. (Photo from the Democrat and Chronicle.)

Did you know they have delicious, original, nerdy drinks there, and yummy food? They’ve got bacon-wrapped meatloaf, people. See you there!

The aforementioned meatloaf. (Ditto.)

The aforementioned meatloaf. (Ditto.)

One of the many amazing views I had while writing at CHQ.
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Two for Two!

You guys, I am so excited to tell you that I won the Charles McCorkle Hauser Prize for prose from the Chautauqua Literary Arts Friends for the second year in a row! Boy, was I surprised when I got that phone call on Saturday morning.

One of the many amazing views I had while writing at CHQ.

One of the many amazing views I had while writing at CHQ.

The winning story, “At Ease,” was the 26th short story I’d written this year—and I wrote it while I was at Chautauqua. Serendipity? Fate? Either way, I’m super pleased. The story is being submitted to the Chautauqua literary journal, so let’s hope they like it as much as the Chautauqua Literary Arts Friends, and want to publish it.

Here’s what the judge had to say:

“At Ease” is a poignant story about how one day can change so many lives forever. It evokes memories using stunning, vivid details that recognize how something seemingly small looms large in our minds.

The gentleman who called to tell me I’d won said, “You’re on a roll.” Here’s hoping I keep up the momentum!

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Sit Rep

I love to say “sit rep,” despite the fact that most everyone I say it to doesn’t know what I’m asking. Am I the only one watching loads of action movies?! It’s a situation report, and here it is:

I’ve been writing, but not as much as I’d hoped to. I’ve been dealing with this annoying neck pain for almost eight months, and working at the computer doesn’t help. I wish I could dictate the story, but the truth is, the words come out of my fingers, not my mouth.

So, the going is slow. But I am thinking about my characters all the time, thinking about the things they’re going to do, the things they’re going to say to each other.

Photo by kate hiscock.

Photo by kate hiscock.

Anyway! To (hopefully) keep you interested, here’s a scene of Maren inside the home she grew up in as a child—that she hasn’t seen for twenty years.

Standing in the middle of the kitchen, she could touch the stove, the refrigerator, the lopsided laminated table. Months of dust had been smeared in swooping circles across the table top. The window over the sink was propped open with an upside-down clay pot; the curtains moved in the breeze, but the house felt stuffy and close, the air thick with dust and mildew.

There was another smell under the must, something warm and dark, sweet but rotten. Maren closed her eyes: An image of her mother in a pair of cut-off denim shorts, holding a plastic yellow bowl, her blonde hair pulled low at the back of her neck.

“Do you want to lick the spoon?”

Peter and Maren, he with bruised knees, her in pigtails, sat indian-style on the sticky linoleum, taking turns licking batter from the wooden spoon. Days when Vera baked were good days. Sometimes, she let Maren sit on her lap while the cookies cooled.

Maren felt warm breath on the back of her neck. She opened her eyes. The smell was still there, but Vera was gone, she was buried in a grave under a tree in a cemetery far from here, nothing but bone.

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Strike One

So, when I went to Chautauqua at the end of June, I was thrilled to be able to hear some very successful people talk about writing. I was even more excited to get to meet some of them and talk to them, however briefly, about my writing. I was able to give two people copies of my book, and a third person, who is the editor of one of the top literary magazines in the country, gave me his email address so I could send him some of my work.

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This weekend, I got a rejection letter from that man, who said that none of the stories I sent him were right for his magazine. You guys, I was so mad when I got that email. Having thick skin is necessary when you’re sharing your art with the world, but sometimes things get under it no matter how thick you’ve managed to grow it.

I should be reporting in on the progress I’ve made on the novel since last week, but the truth is, after that rejection, I struggled mightily with finding the energy to write anything. I did get a few paragraphs written, but nothing I want to share yet.

So, that’s strike one. Hopefully I’ll have better luck with the two people who have copies of my book. If it turns into three-strikes-you’re-out, well… I’ll have to find three new people to talk to about my work, right? Right!

Onward.

Photo by eflon.
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It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

Okay, so it wasn’t dark, but it was stormy! With the caveat that any and all of this could (and will probably) change before this sucker is done, here is the opening scene of my as-yet-untitled novel. Let me know what you think!

Photo by eflon.

Photo by eflon.

It was raining when Maren arrived at the lake. She parked the car in the gravel at the side of the cottage and picked her way down the slick, steep wooden stairs and out to the end of the dock. The lake was still and quiet, dark gray water against the lighter gray of the sky—a winter lake, misplaced at the end of summer. The rain spilled over the collar of Maren’s shirt and soaked through her thin canvas shoes. She turned her face into it, let it wash away the stale air of the car, the grease of her drive-thru lunch, the exhaust and diesel and gasoline of the thruway and, before that, the turnpike.

A gull dropped out of the sky and flew low across the water. Maren bent and took the urn out of the canvas bag. She had asked for something plain, but they’d given her this: brass with a copper finish, a circle of fig leaves etched around the base. Her fingers shook as she unthreaded the lid and set it on the unpainted railing.

“Hello?”

A screen door slammed. As Maren turned toward the sound, her elbow knocked the urn. She reached for it as it wobbled, but it was over the edge, her fingers brushing the wet metal. She grabbed the rail, wincing at the sliver that sunk into the meat of her palm.

There he was, all that was left of Peter flung across the water, a skim of coarse ash and chips of bone. The urn bobbed against the pile, a soft bong that sent a shudder down Maren’s spine.

“Hello?” Footsteps behind her. “Can I help you?”

She turned. At the end of the dock stood an old woman holding a red umbrella, a bright poppy against the relentless gray. She raised her hand to her eyes as if the sun was bright and strong. She wore a thin housecoat and pink rubber sandals. When Maren stepped toward her, the old women stepped back.

“Are you lost?”

“It’s me, Mrs. Richmond. It’s Maren Madsen.”

The line between the old woman’s eyes softened, the umbrella sagged. “Oh, dear.” She hurried along the dock to Maren and took her into her cool, soft arms. “You poor thing. We heard about Peter. Come in and I’ll make you some tea.”

 

Copyright © 2016 Bethany Snyder. All rights reserved.

How could you not be inspired, with views like this? Taken at Chautauqua by me!

A True Composer

I should be posting a peek at my 27th short story of the year, but that’s not what you’re getting. And it’s not because I didn’t write something—in fact, I wrote a lot of somethings! During my time at the Chautauqua Institution last week, I finished three stories and started eight more. I have plenty to choose from! But I don’t want to share any more short stories with you. Instead, I want to share my novel.

How could you not be inspired, with views like this? Taken at Chautauqua by me!

How could you not be inspired, with views like this? Taken at Chautauqua by me!

Yep, I’m going to start writing the novel that I started thinking about a year ago. I’ve been taking lots of notes and rereading them often for inspiration, but until now I’ve always felt like I had to have a good chunk of time where I wasn’t working in order to accomplish something on the magnitude of a novel. I figured I would keep my writing muscles strong with this story-a-week project, and then in 2017 find a way to rearrange life to make it conducive to the novel.

But, friends, life is short. Who knows what 2017 will bring? The thing is, I need to write this novel. I can spend the next twenty-six weeks writing short fiction for you, but I don’t need to. When I sat down to polish up this week’s story, I wasn’t satisfied. I didn’t want to share it with you. Instead, I suddenly knew what to do: start the novel.

I’m reminded of this quote from Stravinsky, which I first heard on one of my favorite shows, Hannibal:

A true composer thinks about his unfinished work the whole time; he’s not always conscious of this, but he’s aware of it when he suddenly knows what to do.

I have always been thinking about the novel, even when I was writing about all of the other people and places you’ve seen glimpses of throughout the first half of this year. Half way through, twenty-six stories, seems a good place to stop, right?

Truth.

Truth.

So! Going forward, the plan is to share scenes from my novel every week. I only have the vaguest notion of what’s going to happen to my characters, but they are ready to walk out on to the stage and start speaking their lines. Ready? Let’s go!

Photo by Stephen Luke.
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Week 26: At Ease

I’ve spent half a year writing stories! Hard to believe. This one was inspired by a story about my grandmother, who would work in the kitchen in just her slip when it was especially hot. Here’s the opening scene of “At Ease.”

Photo by Stephen Luke.

Photo by Stephen Luke.

I was sitting at the kitchen table finishing my lunch when Albert burst in the back door shouting.

Mama was at the stove, stirring a pot of beans that she would turn into a supper enough to feed all of us. It was late August, hot, no breeze to stir the curtains over the sink, and because it was just her and me, she had taken off her house dress and was in just her slip, thin and faded from so many washings.

I watched her with my sandwich halfway to my mouth. I could see she was deciding if she should cover herself or scold Albert for tracking dirt into the house. She settled on wagging the wooden spoon at him, which we all knew meant Say your business and get out of my kitchen, boy.

Albert was fourteen, tall for his age and already a hint of beard on his jaw, so it was easy to forget he was just a boy. But Mama remembered when Albert opened his mouth to speak and burst into tears.

There was a lot of commotion then. Mama pointed me in one direction and Albert in another. He went out to the barn and got his bicycle. I was still lacing up my shoes—my fingers were shaking, so it took longer than usual—when he pedaled off to town to get Doc Jensen.

Mama came out of the back bedroom in a pair of Albert’s dungarees, her hair tied back with a red kerchief. We walked fast out to the field, two steps for me for every one of of Mama’s. She let me hold her hand. I remember how her thumb worked against my knuckle, the only thing that gave away how worried she was.

Photo by me!
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Week 25: Home Run

The inspiration for this one? Heat. It was hot, so I wrote about it being hot. Meet Robin Mae, who’s running an errand into town on a hot summer holiday morning. You’ll get to read the rest of “Home Run” when I’m done with this project. Almost half way there!

Photo by me!

Photo by me!

I told Bill that I forgot to buy chicken, but I didn’t. It’s in the back fridge, cleaned and ready for the grill. But when the dogs woke me up at five-thirty, it was already hot. We don’t have air at the farm, but there’s plenty to spare at the store. So I took the truck into town while Bill was still asleep.

Morgan’s is always busier in the summer, what with the lake people. The parking lot is full and I have to find a spot up on Elm Street and hoof it over. I walk the railroad tracks. The air’s all shimmery from the heat, and makes me feel lightheaded. Bill and I used to walk the tracks to the trestle when we were in school, me balancing on the rail with a hand on his shoulder for balance.

Yesterday morning, I decided all of a sudden that every curtain in the house needed to be taken down, washed, ironed, and hung back up before company came over. Bill said, “You’re not in your right mind anymore, Robin Mae,” and I just said “mm hmm” and kept on ironing. It’s hard for men to understand what goes on in the minds of women, and vice versa. For instance, I have never in my life understood why someone needs to watch a baseball game on the television. When Bill Junior was in school he played third base for the JV team, and I did love sitting in the bleachers and cheering for him. But on the television? No sir.

After the curtains were done, I boiled and peeled the eggs for the macaroni salad (it only took me twenty-some years to get Mrs. Butters’ recipe right, according to Bill), and then I hulled the berries for the shortcake. How I miss Marnie’s help in times like these. Used to be, we’d sit with our heads together at the table, gossiping about the neighbors and licking sticky strawberry juice from our fingers. Hard to believe she’s been gone a whole year.

I love air conditioning. The best vent at Morgan’s is in the middle aisle, about halfway back. I stand under there for a good ten minutes, just letting it blow so cold on the back of my neck. Everyone’s in a rush, worried they won’t get their sweet corn and salt potatoes, jostling each other and harassing those poor Millard girls who work the registers. I just watch it all, nestled up next to the Honey Nut Cheerios and Shredded Wheat, my whole body shivering from the cold.

As much as I don’t want to leave, I do need to get back to start the bacon for the baked beans. Sue and Ed will be early—they always are. So I step on up to the meat counter and get in line behind lake people with sunburned shoulders and fancy jewelry.

Photo by eflon. (It's Keuka Lake!)
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Week 24: Synergy

Synergy: The combined power of a group of things when they are working together that is greater than the total power achieved by each working separately.

I’ve been struggling this week to come to terms with the depth of sorrow and anger I feel over the massacre in Orlando on Sunday. This story is part of my grieving process. As a way to honor the victims, the names of the characters in this story are some of their names. This is the first half of “Synergy.”

Photo by eflon. (It's Keuka Lake!)

Photo by eflon. (It’s Keuka Lake!)

It’s Friday afternoon before the long weekend, and Simon has been staring at the computer screen for an hour. He taps a key occasionally to keep the machine from going to sleep. Over the wall, Amanda snores. Across the aisle, Luis and Brenda have their heads together over the crossword. They are all listless, limp, wilted as the abandoned plant in the conference room. They wait for the corner office door to open, for Mr. Torres to suffer a moment of kindness and let them out into the world early. They dream of hot dogs, the sweet scent of coconut suntan oil, children chasing each other in the dark, sparklers clenched tight in their fists.

The drone of the air conditioner above Simon’s cubicle lulls him deeper into his torpor. He’s been thinking about his brother all day—or, rather, the drive out to the lake to see Oscar and his family. The cottage is musty and dark, full of sand and torn window screens. They prop box fans in the windows so they can sleep. The kids fight over who gets the top bunks in the back bedroom; the wives cluck their tongues at the broken dishwasher and mismatched coffee cups. Simon can’t wait to get there.

He does not yet know that his brother is dead.

The unmistakable sound of Mr. Torres’ door wakes him. They all stand: Amanda, Luis, Brenda, Franky and Jean in their shared space down by the kitchen, Javier tucked away in the corner by the bathroom, poor kid.They are a pack of prairie dogs, heads popping up over cubicle walls.

“Let’s gather,” says Mr. Torres. They shuffle down the aisle. Early dismissal doesn’t require a trip to the conference room. Oscar will have the grill fired up by the time Simon gets to the lake. They still have to pick up Tevin’s prescription, swing by the liquor store for the rum and beer.

His chair squeaks as he pulls it up to the table. Brenda catches his eye and smiles. She has a hard time keeping her mouth shut; she’ll be the one to raise her hand and ask if they can go. Mr. Torres doesn’t seem to like any of them, but he seems to dislike Brenda the least.

“As you may have heard, we won the Crosby proposal,” Mr. Torres says. Simon feels light-headed for a moment; he can taste Deidra’s potato salad, feel the algae-slick stones under his bare feet as he wades into the water.

And then: “I’ve put together a slide deck of the process going forward. Javier, the lights.” They follow the red dot of Mr. Torres’ pointer as he shows them the myriad ways in which the Crosby merger will help them to leverage more synergies. Mr. Torres may not care about people, but he feels deeply about synergies.

Photo by Ben Seidelman.
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Week 23: Transparent

This story was inspired by a photo a friend posted online, on a night when he was suffering from insomnia. It’s stayed in my mind for weeks, so it seemed like crafting a story around it would be a good idea. Here is part of “Transparent.” Thanks, D!

Photo by Ben Seidelman.

Photo by Ben Seidelman.

I found the box the first night I spent in the apartment. It was middle of May, remember that hot spell? The air conditioner was broken. I had all the windows open, I’m laying on the mattress in the middle of the floor, and I’m at just the right angle that I can see under the chest of drawers in the corner. That’s where she slid the shirt box full of your pictures, hid them away so… What? They’d be safe? Or so that no one would find them?

I haven’t told anybody about them yet. Maybe they’d give your mom some comfort. She calls every night, checking on you. I hear the nurse tell her “no change.” On the news, a crackling voice over the telephone, she says she’s raising money to come see you. It’s a long trip, expensive. I mailed a check—not much, but every bit helps. She told the reporter you’re her hero, that she always knew you would do something brave. They show an old home movie of you running around with a little girl, holding her hand. You’re probably seven or eight? Your mom never says who the girl is, and neither does the reporter. I wonder why the news doesn’t just pay for her plane ticket.

This picture’s my favorite. You wrote on the back, “Cranky, can’t sleep.” You’re scowling, and your hair is in your eyes. Your mouth looks like you need be be kissed. I wonder where you were when you took this, why you were apart.

That first night, I made up the details the pictures didn’t tell me: you’re a math teacher, you hate movies with subtitles, your dog’s named Penelope. I spread your pictures out around me like they were the moat and my bed was a castle. Sometimes on the train home I think about the chances that I’d have your pictures and you’d end up in my hospital. Maybe I’m lucky. Maybe we both are.

Photo by Andrew Malone.
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Week 22: Rhyme and Reason

This one is about the power of music and memory. A friend provided the bones of this story; here’s the flesh—or some of the flesh, anyway. Here’s a little bit of “Rhyme and Reason.”

Photo by Andrew Malone.

Photo by Andrew Malone.

A graduation gift from her grandparents, the car has carried her across two hundred thousand miles, through twenty-nine states, two college degrees, and six boyfriends. She’s been with Misha for eleven years; she’s had the car for nineteen. When she and Misha agreed it was time to trade it in, Audrey waited until she was in the bathroom to cry.

The air conditioning went during the summer before senior year of high school. The head gasket blew on the way to Panama City for spring break, and again on her way home to Bangor for her sister’s wedding. Cigarette burns pockmarked the upholstery, from the summer she tried smoking. Kendra gave birth in the backseat of Audrey’s car when a tractor trailer full of cabbage jackknifed on Route 1 outside Danvers.

Misha opens the front door, cocks his head. “Did you check under the seats?” he asks. Audrey can smell his coffee, dark and sweet. Misha is not the man she thought she’d marry, and yet there he is, wearing leather slippers and a plaid bathrobe, leaning against the dark brick of their house.

“Right, right,” she says. She kneels, wedges herself under the steering wheel. More lip balm, a root beer bottle, and something just out of reach. It skims off her fingertips, and then it’s in her hand, cool plastic against her palm. Her throat tightens.

“What’d ya find?” Misha asks.

“Nothing,” Audrey says. “I’m almost done. Start the eggs?”

Misha is so good about leaving her be when she needs it. He nods and goes back inside.

Audrey climbs into the driver’s seat and closes the door. The car turns over begrudgingly, as if it knows it’s being traded in. She slides the cassette into the tape deck.

Photo by Nathan.
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Week 21: Sacrifice

This is one of those stories that started out as something completely different. The character had a different name, it took place in a different location, and it was about something different. Which is to say: I spent last Saturday writing a story, scrapped almost all of it, and ended up with this. Here is the opening of “Sacrifice.”

Photo by Nathan.

Photo by Nathan.

Who invites a burned man to a hibachi restaurant?

Kennet grips the edge of the table until his fingertips turn white. He’s sitting at the far end of the far side of the table, the left side of his face turned to the wall.

To be honest, he hadn’t paid attention to the where of the invitation, Vi’s voice a rush of breath on his voicemail. He’d caught the relevant details: Monday, eight, in the plaza across from Costantino’s. It had been so long since he’d been invited anywhere, he felt a hot ember of hope burn in his chest as he penciled the time onto the calendar clipped to the freezer door.

And now here he sits, watching a Japanese kid in an oversized smock squeeze vegetable oil into a tower of onions sliced thick as his thumb. Kennet’s already finished two beers, shredded the labels off the bottles. His friends chatter with the chef, catch shrimp in their gaping mouths.

“You,” the chef says, pointing his spatula at Kennet. He frowns and shakes his head. The boy says, louder, “You!” Kennet ducks, and the shrimp bounces off his forehead and lands in the center of his plate. Everyone laughs.

There are six of them at dinner: Vi and Marlena, Vi’s friend Hugh and his wife Jeanine, Kennett, and a girl whose name Kennet has already forgotten. She’s round all over—face, breasts, calves. She’s plain in a small town way that reminds him of junior high dances, the girls without dates in a line at the top of the bleachers, each dreaming of the day she’ll finally wake up beautiful and wanted.

Later, he’ll call Vi and tell her that this has to stop. There have been seven blind dates so far, each a bleacher girl. Homely, lame. This one is fat and loud. Kennet pushes himself into the wall. The chef touches a flame to the onion tower, and he bites back a scream.

Photo by Ninac26.
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Week 20: All That You’ve Got

For pretty much my whole life, I’ve called vinyl records “record albums.” Apparently, that’s redundant. Who knew?! (Everyone but me, I guess.) I wrote the first line of this story awhile ago, but couldn’t really figure out what to do with it. Then Bon Jovi came into my head for some reason, and “All That You’ve Got” was born. Meet Jemma and her mom, who definitely listen to record albums (even if that’s not what they call them in this story).

Photo by Ninac26.

Photo by Ninac26.

Tommy said he would be dead by forty so many times, I wasn’t sure if it was a premonition or a promise. When the cops came knocking a few weeks before his birthday, I don’t think either of us were surprised. Jemma didn’t cry until I was tucking her into bed.

“What do we do now?” Her lip shook.

It’s easy to forget she’s only nine. She’s wearing the Bon Jovi t-shirt Tommy gave her last summer, the one from the New Jersey Syndicate tour. I was afraid I’d tossed it, but it was just hiding in the back of her dresser.

“Well,” I say, “the next thing will be the funeral.”

She sits up, wadding the shirt in her fists. “No, I mean what do we do now without Tommy?”

She hasn’t called him Dad since he moved out, when she was four. We haven’t seen him in weeks, since Jemma’s dance recital. He showed up sober, which was good, but with Gina, which was not good. As usual whenever he brought his wife around, the day ended in tears for three out of four of us.

Jemma’s convinced Tommy married Gina because of her name. Her main quality seems to be that she can complain more than any other human on the planet. She hasn’t held a job in the five years we’ve known her, so it’s safe to say she’s not bringing home her pay for love.

Jemma used to love that song, sang it to her reflection every night before bed, little pink hairbrush clutched in her hand and frizzy hair in a ponytail on top of her head. Then Gina showed up and ruined everything for Jemma, including her favorite song.

Photo by Jim Lukach.
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Week 19: Tilt

I had a head-first MRI this week (I’d had a leg/foot one a few years ago). It was a pretty unsettling experience, because my brain kept trying to convince me that the zombie apocalypse had happened, everyone was dead, and I was stuck forever in a tube I couldn’t get out of. Yeah, I watch a lot of horror movies, what of it? So anyway! I wanted to write about that, but I’ve also been thinking about a farmhouse kitchen I stood in once, that has stayed with me over the years. Those two things combined to inspire this story. I hope you enjoy the first few paragraphs of “Tilt.”

Photo by Jim Lukach.

Photo by Jim Lukach.

While Gabriel is dying on the side of a rain-soaked Paris street, Jenny is washing dishes in a sun-filled kitchen in the hills outside of Chattanooga. She looks up, sure she has heard a knock at the door, or the phone ringing. She cocks her head, holds her breath. The house is quiet.

It is far too big for one person, but Jenny could never sell. It’s the kitchen she loves, really. She closed up the second floor when Elliot left, and only goes into the cellar when she absolutely has to. But the kitchen. How many skinned knees have been kissed better by mamas in that kitchen? How many chocolate chip cookies have been snuck from wire cooling racks on the window over the sink? How many whistles of the tea kettle, how many turkeys crackling brown in the oven, how many races to be first to answer the phone, socked feet slipping on the tiled floor? How many tears, shed over hearts broken by callous and fickle boys, have been wiped away in that kitchen?

She’s going to be late to work again, but the sun is so warm, the kitchen so peaceful, Jenny can’t bring herself to leave. She pours the rest of the coffee and sits at the farmhouse table, its wood worn smooth by generations of mutinous elbows. Gabriel carved their initials on the underside of this table with the pocket knife he got on his fourteenth birthday. A week later, wrestling with his little brother on the way home from school, he lost the knife down a storm drain. He got whupped so hard for that, he had to stand to eat his supper.

Jenny looks at the clock. There’s time. There’s always time, if you make it. That had been one of her mama’s favorites. She crawls under the table and lays down on her back, one hand behind her head. She traces the clumsy letters with her finger: GWW + JLP, 1998. The year she and Gabriel met. The year she got the headaches.

Photo by Markus Spiske.
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Week 18: Prognosis

This week’s story was inspired by pain. Specifically, my pain. (If you want the details – nothing gory, I promise! – scroll to the bottom of this post.) I thought I’d try my hand at talking about pain in the context of a story. Last night, the opening and closing scenes came to me, and “Prognosis” was born. Here’s a scene from the middle of the story:

Photo by Markus Spiske.

Photo by Markus Spiske.

Millie’s fingers find the bruise, fresh enough to still be more purple than yellow, in the crook of her elbow. She picks at the sticky residue the bandage left behind. At the end of her life, Millie’s mother would bruise from the slightest touch, her skin tearing and turning black. Millie sees the ghost of her mother in her own skin, translucent and fragile.

That morning, as usual, she and Cassandra shared the paper over a breakfast of Cheerios and black coffee. Millie found herself drawn to the obituaries.

“I don’t believe this,” she said. Cassie’s pen hovered over the crossword. “Do they really expect us to believe that everyone’s battle with cancer is courageous?”

Her sister grunted. “I’d imagine living with cancer is an act of courage, yes.”

“But it sounds so positive. Optimistic.” Millie turned to the funny pages. Marmaduke always made her chuckle. “Be prepared for me to be decidedly uncourageous. Pessimistic. Ornery, even.”

“I’m prepared.”

Millie is so used to pain, she can go days without thinking about it. At first, it consumed her. She imagined it as a great winged bird, perched on her back, its talons piercing her flesh. The bird grew fatter, heavier, as each day wore on. By evening, she was so exhausted from bearing its weight that Cassandra brought her dinner in bed, their mother’s china on a wooden tray. She swallowed ibuprofen like candy.

In the doctor’s office, she focuses on the faded print of the Cliffs of Moher, adds it to the list of places she will never visit. Only a few cause an ache in her chest: her father’s childhood home in the French countryside near Eze, the Great Wall of China, the Hawaiian islands, her mother’s mother’s homestead, still standing, in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Cassandra loaded them both into the car last summer to check the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas off the list. Millie loved the cacophony of the casinos, the way her arms marbled into gooseflesh in the air conditioned hotels after the heat of the desert. A framed picture of the two of them astride donkeys, ascending from the Grand Canyon floor, sits atop the bookshelf in the study.

At night, Millie lays in her narrow bed, her brain muddy from the sleeping pills, and remembers the people, lost to her now, with whom she shared her life: the faces of her parents, her husband, school chums, neighbors. But mostly she imagines the lives she hasn’t lived, and never will: A second marriage to the handsome widow who approaches her nervously during the cruise-ship dinner. The quiet years after Cassandra’s death, a pussy cat curled on her lap, purring. A time when pain is forgotten, when the bird unfurls its wings and flies away, and Millie stands straight and strong.

 

So, back over the holidays, I slept funny. You know that pain you get in your neck when you tweak it just so? That’s what I had… but it hasn’t gone away. I’m seeing a doctor for it, and basically I have an inflamed nerve in my neck, which causes my trapezius muscle to lock up, which has resulted in painful trigger points all through my tricep and forearm. See, I told you, not gory at all!

Photo by me. Taken in York Beach.
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Week 17: What You Get When You Get What You Want

I originally wrote this about eight years ago, but it never felt finished and ready, as they say, for prime time. But it’s done and ready now! It takes place in my favorite place: York Beach, Maine. If I remember right, the title came first, and I built the story around it. Here are a few paragraphs from the middle of “What You Get When You Get What You Want.”

Photo by me. Taken in York Beach.

Photo by me. Taken in York Beach.

 

She pattered around the kitchen wearing an old plaid bathrobe of his that she’d found hanging in the bedroom closet. The cold linoleum made the soles of her feet ache. The ring box, safe in the front pocket of the robe, bounced against her thigh as she walked. She made a pot of tea and cobbled together a dinner of what was left over from their last trip: stale crackers, peanut butter, some questionable green olives.

Under the cupboard in the bathroom, back behind the toilet paper and covered in a thin layer of dust, she found a half-empty bottle of Jack. She chugged the bottle standing in front of the sink, and then threw up mouthfuls of smoky, burning liquid. She laid down on the floor and willed herself to cry. At dawn she drew her knees to her chest and slept.

In the clean morning sunshine, she looked for dust. Only three weeks had passed since the last trip, and there was little for her to do. They had been thorough, wiping down the fridge inside and out, moving the futon out from the wall to vacuum behind. She picked peeling contact paper from the kitchen drawer bottoms.

In the living room, she took the books off the shelf and dusted the spines. Danielle Steel, Larry McMurtry, three Bibles, a collection of battered picture books, their pages stained with the chocolate fingerprints of someone else’s children. On the bottom shelf, she found the book he’d sworn he’d left at the cottage and she’d sworn he hadn’t even brought with him. She’d felt a spike of joy that they no longer had to fight about the ring.

The missing book was their last argument. She flipped to the page he’d marked with a leaf he’d picked up on an afternoon walk to town, still green.

In the late afternoon, the wind had picked up and carried the sound of the buoy to her. Something in her chest tightened, felt like it would snap. She touched the smooth velvet of the ring box. If she didn’t go now, she would waste away, she would haunt these small rooms until she turned to dust. They would find her laid out in the bed with the bones of her fingers wrapped around the blue box.

Photo from Variety.
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Week 16: And the Winner Is

I started this story a very long time ago, but never got around to finishing it. Until now! This came about after watching yet another award show, and wondering how it’s possible that Hollywood offspring are almost always thin and gorgeous. Here are the open paragraphs of “And the Winner Is.”

Photo from Variety.

Photo from Variety.

My dad tells you to buy a new Cadillac, donate blood, insure your home with State Farm—and you do. Every Wednesday night, fourteen million of you tune him to hear him tell his wife that those jeans make her look fat. How you laugh! This fall, he’ll save America from North Korean terrorists. And while you shuffle out of the theatre, clutching your crumpled bag of soggy popcorn, you and your buddies will agree that America would be a better place—and funnier—if my dad was really the president.

We are on the jet back to Los Angeles when Dad gets the call that he’s scored his third Emmy nomination. Doyle pours frothy champagne. Bronwyn wipes mascara off her plumped cheeks.  She and Dad have been married for three weeks. What luck!

Doyle hands me a glass. He’s been Dad’s bodyguard for four years, ever since Dad was stabbed. Before that, Doyle had been an occasional golf buddy. He’s the size of a door. If Dad’s out in public, Doyle is two steps behind with his SIG Sauer P229 in a holster under his left arm. He promises he will teach me to shoot.

Dad kicks my shoe with his. “Me and Bronwyn this year, Lulu.”

My name is not Lulu. He calls me that because he says I remind him of Boss Hogg’s wife on The Dukes of Hazzard. I’ve told him there has to be a more modern fat-lady reference he can use, but he loves Lulu. “You’ll be at school anyway.”

Every year, Dad finds an excuse to keep me off the red carpet. Last year, he had to take Grandma, who he said might not live to see the next ceremony (she didn’t). The year before, he took Doyle to thank him for saving him when he fell off the yacht in the Seychelles. This year, he has to show off Bronwyn’s face. It cost a lot of money.

Photo by Jeffrey Hilton.
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Week 15: Saved

This was a tough one. I wrote and rewrote this story so many times! Here’s what happened: I saw this picture on Facebook, and immediately fell in love with it. I contacted the friend who had posted it, and asked if I could use it in my story-a-week project; he agreed. And then I tried making up a story about what’s going on in this picture, specifically the little boy walking away in the back row. I struggled to match the details of what I saw, and kept running into dead ends. Finally, I deleted everything I’d written (and rewritten, and rewritten) and started over, using the picture as part of the story, instead of the story itself. What I ended up with is a little tale of a man, his brother who died when they were young, and his son. (To be clear: None of that is true about the boys in this photo. I just used it as a jumping off point for the story.) Huge thanks to Jeffrey for letting me use this treasure! Here is the opening scene of “Saved.”

Photo by Jeffrey Hilton.

Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Hilton.

Henry finds the picture of Ben at summer camp s in a shoebox when they are helping Pop clean the garage. He studies the picture with Gran’s magnifying glass for a long time before bringing it to Ben.

“Which one’s you, Dad?”

Ben points to the dark haired boy in the vest. “That’s me.”

“Uncle Adam?”

They lean over the picture, their heads together. “Right there,” Ben says, pointing at the boy walking away, his head turned. He slugs the rest of his beer, already warm. “That’s Adam.”

Henry lifts his chin and sighs. They stand at the edge of the garage, watch the clouds roll low over the corn fields. Pop says it’s gonna rain, hard. Henry and Ben brought the laundry in off the line for Gran earlier, jeans stiff, pillowcases snapping in the warm wind.

“How come no one talks about him?” Henry asks. There’s a loud crack behind them as Pop drops a wrench on the concrete. He looks at Ben, then at Henry, and then goes back to hanging tools.

“It was a long time ago. Tough to remember,” Ben says. He reaches out to touch Henry’s shoulder, but then doesn’t.

“But he was your brother,” Henry says. He waggles the picture at Ben. “I’d remember everything, if I had a brother.”

“Go in and help Gran with supper,” Ben says.

“Dad, come on.” Henry gestures at the shadow-filled garage. “I’m helping you and Pop.”

“Not any more. Go.”

Ben forgets things all the time: where he put his keys, Henry’s birthday, what Jenny wants him to pick up at the store on his way home. But he remembers every detail of the day Adam died: the October sky so blue it made his eyes water, the crunch of dried corn stalks under their boots as they ran through the fields, the sharp scent of burning leaves.

Photo by Indi Samarajiva.
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Week 14: Black Tie Required

This story was inspired by handsome men in tuxedos at the bachelor auction for Gilda’s Club, and by seeing someone I used to know. Isn’t that so strange, when you knew someone so well, and then they are gone from your life? Seeing them again can be like seeing a ghost. Here are the opening paragraphs of “Black Tie Required.”

Photo by Indi Samarajiva.

Photo by Indi Samarajiva.

The room is a riot of color and noise, the thump of bass, spirals of cigar smoke, light from the chandeliers winking off gold cufflinks and silver platters. The women are in heels, jeweled clutches tucked under their arms. Tuxedos transform average faces into movie stars. I watch you from across the room, standing close to a woman in a slim black dress, a curl of diamonds around her wrist. The tray balanced on my fingertips tilts as someone snatches the last glass of champagne.

I’d flipped through the program earlier, saw your headshot: keynote speaker, Chief Whatever Officer of the firm sponsoring the gala. The unexpected site of your name sends a spike of shock up my spine. I have thought of you over the years—but with curiosity, not regret. When I see you, alive and breathing just feet from me, my traitorous heart pounds and my cheeks warm.

It was snowing when you arrived; I heard you complaining about it to Sam at coat check. Your voice carries, the bark of your laugh contagious. In the time it takes you to give Sam your cashmere coat and pocket the token she gives you in return, she’s blushing and literally batting her lashes. I think about saying something to her, but there are guests to serve.

We pass in the hallway by the restrooms. Our eyes meet, but there is no recognition. I am just another waitress, the help, not attractive enough to warrant your attention. I suppose I look different enough that you wouldn’t recognize me at first glance. I’m fat, and I grew out my hair. I need glasses now. You look younger; I doubt you can raise your eyebrows if you wanted to. Still, the sight of you is instantly as familiar as my own reflection. How can you not know me?

Photo by Don DeBold.
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Week 13: The Happiest Man

I was at the bookstore when I saw a droopy-faced man. He seemed like a pretty happy fella, which got me to wondering what it might be like to be the happiest person you know, but your face said otherwise. And that’s where this week’s story, about Carl Junior and his beloved mama, came from. Here’s a peek.

Photo by Don DeBold.

Photo by Don DeBold.

Carl Junior had one of those long faces that made him look perpetually sad. In fact, he was often the happiest person in any given room, despite his facial features, his lack of steady employment, and his chronic dandruff.

He learned to be happy by watching his mother. Carol Jean was ugly and poor, beaten down by circumstance and Carl Senior, but she lived—and died—smiling. She taught her only child that happiness required just two things: someone to love, and someone to love you back. Carol Jean had Carl Junior. Carl Junior had loved and been loved by his mother, but now she was gone.

“Refill, hon?”

“Yes, please,” he said. Carl Junior had just lost his job on third shift at the mill. He had lasted almost two months, but he never quite adjusted to staying up so late. In Carol Jean’s house, it was lights out at nine.

Patty filled his cup, and then leaned on her folded arms. The diner was almost empty, the breakfast crowd having moved on to whatever filled up their days.

“You getting on okay, with your mama gone?” Patty asked.

She had forgotten to put mascara on her left eye; it made that side of her face look blurry, unfocused. Carl Junior tried to focus on the right side of her face.

“Oh, sure,” he said. He had kept Carol Jean’s plants alive, and usually remembered to dust under the credenza. Still, it was a lot of house for one man. To Patty, he said: “I made a meatloaf.”