How It Is Working Out

Today I finished Chapter One. I woke up this morning and my knee was slightly swollen and it still is this evening. But I did finish Chapter One of a book I am writing to get the feel of writing a book.

I am writing this book like I write anything else. A little bit, a little bit. I do not know how else to do it. I miss the flow of running when my thoughts wandered and I could develop a new idea, or sketch a scene in my mind. This summer I made myself write a couple of short stories. Just parked in a coffee shop and wrote. In one story, lovers break away from each other. In the other, a woman decides to kill herself. So it follows that I chose this stretch of time to start a practice book.

Sustain Creative Momentum

Earlier this year I was reading my colleague David Lee’s manuscript about what it looks like to shape curriculum around design thinking and applied learning. David is finishing his fifth year at Korea International School and has spent a great chunk of his time learning how to implement design thinking in his makerspace and working with his colleagues to develop applied learning transdisciplinary units. He writes about process. One part of the process is to sustain creative momentum.

I paused at that phrase. Sustain creative momentum. I wrote it at the top of a page in my notebook. And in the time since, I’ve turned the phrase over in my mind, written it in the middle of my writing practice, considered what it means to sustain creative momentum when I don’t know why.

This transition year is tough. I expected my role as a school wide utility teacher (I’ve stepped into JK and AP rooms) to afford me more creative energy to write – after all, as a substitute I don’t plan or grade. But just the move to Korea made everything new: neighborhood, routine, transportation, food, apartment. And at school I am constantly in the middle of new situations: an age group I haven’t taught before, a subject I don’t understand, another teacher’s space. While I might be able to leave school at school (I try), our family life is a flux of whatever any one of us is dealing with re: transition, change. So much about this move is good but the difficult parts feel like absolute disaster.

One of my personal disasters is writing. The other night I told Justin that I am not working as I expected to, not starting anything new, just sorta picking at work that’s done, sending revised pieces out with the slimmest hope any editor decides to print one of my essays or stories. When I sit to write, I journal or pray. I’m fortunate to write/ edit a little for the school and I don’t discount that work as useful or good practice. But years ago I decided writing matters enough to me that I want to keep at the craft. More, I decided I want to share what I write. This year I am not doing much of either. And that makes me sad. I cannot develop my craft without developing my craft. I doubt I will touch art if I don’t write prolifically. But this year I thought would deliver flow is as fragmented as any other so when I read

sustain creative momentum

I knew that’s what I need to do as a writer, but how?

I have a project. In a week I will probably think it’s the stupidest thing I could do with my time. (Looking at a file of unpublished stories I sometimes think how great a cook I could be if I quit bothering the words). But I will do this project because it will teach me something I don’t know yet. This project is manic. But whatever. For the month of May I will write daily and post 500-1000 words on the odd days. Narrative and/ or poetry. Stand alone or serial posts. Personal, outlandish, boring, safe, fun. I’ll pick up and drop themes. I’ll probably whinge. For sure I’ll write a lot of junk and it’s a little frightening to think of spending a month being less precious about what I toss up on this space but whatever. Really. This project is about choosing to sustain creative momentum when I don’t know why.

Rules

  1. Have fun most of the time
  2. Experiment: structure, tense, POV, syntax & usage
  3. Reuse ideas but don’t pick at old drafts
  4. Daydream draft
  5.   

At some point during the month I’ll add a fifth rule. I can already feel my shoulders tightening, a slight pull in my neck at the anticipation and dread of making this project work, and a stone in my belly at the thought that this month, like so much of my other writing, will only pile on the practice while failing to call out a fuller writing life. I am good at calling my pessimism or apathy realistic and I am good at cutting tiny sprigs of hope from my heart. This year, this wonderful and tough year in a new country, this year of feeling out of place or inadequate, this year I occupy my mind with sorrow and fear, this year of faded, renewed and early friendship; this year wondering why I am here – this is the year I realized I am missing deep hope. I want hope like a wildflower garden spilling down a hill or crowding a yard. My hope is more like a row of marigolds edging the vegetable garden, more practical than pretty, present because I’m supposed to have hope, but kept in line.

I want to practice hope this month. I practice craft with the hope I write art one day. I draft with the idea someone will read this piece and respond. But those tiny sprigs are crowded by stalks of fear and doubt. What happens if I decide to write without any expectation beyond: practice craft, have fun. What happens if this month I hope for thousands of words and two or three really good starts? What a nice, safe hope. What happens if this month I hope for a clear idea of what comes next for my writing work? Start before you’re ready. This month I will sustain creative momentum, with hope.

(915 words)

A Short Narrative Poem

An exercise from The Practice Of Poetry. Parameters: 11-15 lines, 9-11 syllables / line, no rhyme. Varied sentence length.

She wakes just after four when the sky
leaves night. When she cannot sleep again
she puts on running shorts and a bright coral
shirt made to feel like nothing at all, even
when it’s hot. She finds her shoes, unlocks the door
and walks three flights to the street, turns left
on a street of antique (antik) shops, galleries,
cafes. There are stoops wide enough for sleeping
homeless men (she counts three but returning
an hour and a half later, only one, arms crossed,
eyes closed like he means it, and where the others
were, the smell of urine). She crosses the bridge,
meeting a pack of drunk young men who cheer
when one of them runs backwards, keeps
her pace for ten or fifteen meters.
On Margaret (Margit) Island she passes
a couple who is like a performance piece:
they stand toe to toe, his head bent to hers,
unmoving. She passes another couple
kissing on a bench, limbs overlapping. Now
each are part of Sunday morning together.

Lovely / Interesting Unread Things

I’ve been writing about my early teaching years. Below is a WP selection.

I started writing again my second year of teaching. I filled one or two notebooks that year. I couldn’t think what to write unless it was a draft example for my freshmen or sophomores. My classroom was next to the Spanish room and Karla was patient and kind to me for the three years we were neighbors. Between periods, we’d chat in the hall. I got to know her like that and on inservice days, during after school activities and on shared car rides. Karla had four little kids at home. She talked about weekend birthday parties, family dinners, trick-or-treat. There were a few women I knew during that time that I looked at and thought that’s what grown up meant.

One day I found out she’d taught English but switched to Spanish. Students choose to take a second language, she said. I got it. It makes a difference, to teach a class students elect. I taught required English, ambivalent about my job every third day. Karla told me about a friend who’d quit because his students sucked his love of literature dry. This was a passing period conversation, an offhand anecdote of my fear. The bell rang.

I remember introducing writing practice to my students at that school. I wasn’t sure how it would work when we started because I lacked a steady practice. But we began anyway, ten minutes at a time. I learned to write again.

When I started writing again, with my students, I decided not to stop. I thought about that teacher Karla mentioned, wondered if he’d quit writing poetry or reading dense Russian novels because he had to grade American lit analytical essays. Even then, over a decade ago, I had a sense that if I let go my own reading and writing, I’d resent the profession cutting into the two pleasures that made me want to teach English at all.

I just finished reading a bunch of student poetry, first fruits of consistent WP. I’m encouraged by how many of my students went for it, playing with metaphor, sound and form. And I’m reminded again how tough it is to put ourselves on the page, to choose honesty over fear. Years ago, a student left her notebook for me to read. I still remember what she told in her bubbled script. I finished reading and cried. Sometimes writing our selves on the page is enough but this girl needed more. So we all do, when our admission, memory, dream, want, fear, joy, insecurity or hope whispers share me. I want to know why that is, for my students and me, and for others who write lovely / interesting unread things. I think about that girl who left her notebook, or a few of my students whose poems I just read. I peek into the lives sitting in desks in front of me. There is honor and pleasure to this work.

Starting Over

I read this article in Slate about the current glut of first-person narratives online. Two or three years ago I started revising several of my essays about marriage and parenting. Most were confessional and tended to turn didactic at their conclusions. Some were pieces I still value because writing them was enough. But some were pieces I wanted to immediately share – and did, with a workshop or friend. And then I wanted a wider audience.

It’s the start of another semester teaching creative writing, which means I guide students as they begin or re-establish their writing practice. Which means I feel a little new to writing practice too when we talk about Natalie Goldberg’s rules and give ourselves permission to write anything. Anything in your notebooks, I tell my classes. And later, we’ll talk about how to pull poetry and narrative from those pages. Later, we’ll practice revision. And later, we’ll share.

But first, fill the pages. And fill the pages without an audience waiting to eat your story.

If I imagine an experience or emotion as a personal essay, I lose a little recklessness in my writing. Or I discount the value of writing it at all because who wants to read this junk? No one. So why write it?

I write the junk anyway. I need to relearn my writing practice. I tell my students to trust the process, they’ll be surprised what shows up, the honesty and depth, the gorgeous phrases, the fun stories. Trust the process, I say because I know most of my students will discover power and beauty in writing until their hands hurt. I want that again. I’ve expected too much from my writing. I’ve been greedy. I didn’t just write my heart out, I wrote my heart out and wanted you to read it and like it. I read that Slate piece thinking I would’ve whored my writing a couple of years ago because all I wanted was an audience. And now?

I still want publication. But I also want to learn the craft so when the time comes for my work to land in print, you’ll read it because it’s good, not just because the title is clickbait. I don’t really know how to write right now. So I’m starting over with my notebook, writing anything and pushing the wider audience away.

Flash Fiction Serial: Less Flash, More Serial

One of my students read a quote from Stephen King’s On Writing. Paraphrasing, King says that he has to keep writing a story so it doesn’t grow cold. This week I’ll continue writing Tally and Carl and post as I draft.

Part 2

Carl picked me up at six the next Saturday morning, leaving his truck to idle while he came to the door and knocked. Mom offered him a cup of coffee which he drank black. He whispered, knowing Shane was in the other room. When he stood to leave, I stood too. Mom tilted her cheek up for me to kiss.

There was a package of mini powdered donuts on the seat and a bag of sodas on the floor. We drove north toward the dam. Dad had taken me fishing there a long time ago. I didn’t like the smell of the still water. I spent the day tossing Fruit Loops near the bank, watching them slowly bloat. On the drive out, I wondered if I should pretend with Carl, like I really liked fishing.

You like fishing? he asked, tires crunching in the gravel lot.

Kinda, I said.

It’s nice, he said, Gives you a chance to clear your head. I’m out here most weekends.

I hop down from the cab, taking the sodas and donuts. Carl gets the poles and tackle from the bed. He leads us down the earthen dam and tells me which side we’ll fish off, unless I want a competition. It’s the same grassy bank, wet with dew. There’s no breeze but I’m glad I wore a hoodie. Carl opens the bag of donuts and takes two, passes the bag to me. The donuts remind me of when we went to church with Charlene and had juice and donuts in the Fellowship Hall after the service. Carl opened a Pepsi and handed one to me.

Breakfast of champions, he said. He took a long drink and set the can in the grass. He bent over the tackle, opening a sour cream container filled with dirt and worms. He handed me a pole and pointed where I should aim. I came close and started reeling the slack. Carl told me how to fish even though there isn’t much to know when it’s the shallows and all you have is a light pole.

I might go out to Montana this summer and learn to fly fish, he said.

You could do that up north, I said.

Montana sounds cooler.

I make the bobber dance a little, reel it in and send it back out with the same worm. This time I feel a nibble all the way up the line, down the pole to my hands. I watch the bobber dip under and give a slight jerk on the line. There’s too much slack and I only startle the fish away, a little ripple. Enough of the worm is still on the hook, I send it out again. We do that side by side for a while, casting lines, eating donuts, drinking sodas. There are a hundred things I’d like to ask Carl about. He lives with his grandparents but I don’t know why. He quit baseball this season but I only heard rumors why. I want to know what he’d like to do after he graduates next year. I sneak looks at him. He’s seventeen, two years older than me. I like that. He’s got hair that glints gold in the sun. His clothes are as worn as mine. He’s lean like a farm worker. His nose could be on a profile stamped on coins.

I’m suddenly very conscious of his body near mine, of the way he clears his throat and cracks his neck to one side, of how his hands look working another worm on my hook. I remember to breathe.

Can I ask you something? I say and before he answers, I ask, How do you get it?

What?

The liquor.

Oh, he says and laughs a little. You looking for a side business? I can’t tell you just so you can undercut me. We both know I’m not asking for that. He squats down and fiddles with a new bobber on his line. When he straightens and casts again, he says, I really can’t tell you. I’m sorry. He sounds sorry. After a few minutes he says, Ask me another. I’ll answer this time.

I think about what I want to know. I’d like to know if this is a date, if my first date is here on the dam with my hair pulled in a ponytail and the smell of mud between us. I look at the water, as still as when Dad took me here years ago, and I wish I were here with him, not Carl. My throat goes thick so I can’t speak. Carl jokes he doesn’t know anything about the Kennedy assassination but the thought of Dad being here with me that many years ago, putting worms on my hook and not getting mad when I laid down to watch the clouds, it makes me want to cry and I can’t, not in front of Carl.

He puts a hand on my arm. He can tell something. He speaks like he’s coaxing me out from hiding. Tally, hey, you’re alright. What’s wrong? I pick up my Pepsi and take a drink, swallow the lump.

I came here with my dad a long time ago, I say. We both cast our lines again. Neither of us are getting bites, even though we can see the shadows swimming. Carl says, Me too.

No Fancy Way To Say Apathy

Oh man.

I started a short fiction piece this week because if I want to write short fiction, I need to write short fiction. Probably because of Fiction Workhorse, I want to write like I’m ripping off a Band-Aid. Fast. Get a story, write a story. Feel it, leave it. That’s what this current draft is. Another fast piece covering a lot of time in a short space. Spare details. I’m thinking of slowing it down, except I’d like to get the suffering over with quickly. The character deserves to sit in limp regret but I can’t think why I’d draw that over more than a thousand words.

Here’s why: because when I sit in limp regret it always takes well over a thousand words. This month I returned to an old itch, why I didn’t quit teaching  and get an MFA and go on to publish in floundering journals and then in more widely read journals and, maybe, put together a collection. I think I’m nearly done scratching because I realize that

teaching
marrying
moving abroad
having babies
traveling

and whatever else (all the unglamorous issues and insecurities I manage):

it all adds to a much richer current writing experience. I am banging away at learning a craft, mostly having fun. I am writing my way to okay being small, okay waiting for anything I write to find its way to a reader who does just what I did this morning when I read a sentence and stopped to cry a little; or what I did yesterday when another character made me laugh.

So I spent three weeks moping that I know nothing about writing when that isn’t true. I just wanted to mope. What is true is that I need to decide (again) it’s fine to write just to write. I send pieces out. And one day I’ll publish. But right now, this is it. Do I have the endurance to keep writing narrative for the practice of constructing better narrative in five years? I pray about this. Because art is important to me. I write nearly every day. I figure things out on the page. Stories run through me. I have to remember that I am not so special. I do not deserve an audience. But I have been writing to write for years and this month I again asked why.

Packed into my list of why is pleasure. Writing gives me pleasure. It’s so good. We need a little art each day. Every time I ask why, I remind myself of the metaphors the writing process contains. Drafting, revising. Experimenting, discovering or uncovering. Please let all of this be enough.

Fiction Workhorse Week Four 2450 Words

I was going to skip this week. When I sat at my notebook or turned the radio off in the car, nothing came. That isn’t true. I got stories. I met characters. But not for this space. Parameters can force a different creativity. I tell myself that. I mostly believe it. Here I have to come up with  pieces that play a few steps over the line, on the safe side, an editor watching my practice. I can live with that. This week was a challenge though.


The Fringe Presses In

Once a month, Dawn made a lasagna. Jack liked it and the kids ate it. Jack always remarked on that, the kids eating the lasagna. You should make it more often, he suggested. But if she made it more often, the kids would get tired of it. Also, it took a little time. It wasn’t a twenty-minute meal she could make after work. Instead, she made lasagna on a Saturday or Sunday, with fresh mozzarella from the morning’s trip to the grocery store. Today was Tuesday and she had shredded cheddar and Swiss. She’d called in sick and decided to make a lasagna to have something to do.

She sautéed a white onion and a few cloves of garlic. She opened a couple of cans of diced tomatoes and poured them in the pan. The inside of the cans smelled how her stomach felt. If she licked the lining of a can, Dawn knew she’d taste what she felt. For weeks a metallic tinge colored her bites and breaths.

This happened twice before. The first time the kids were just babies and she’d gotten a prescription for an antidepressant. The medication helped. She was terrified of being dependent on anything pharmaceutical so weaned herself after a year. By then, then Lauren and Caleb were sleeping through the night and she could too. She read about the brain. She exercised four times a week. When the metallic tinge returned, Dawn exercised five times a week, then six, then seven, giving her body over to a rotation of cardio and strength training. She lost twenty pounds. She sweated metal out.

That was four years ago. Her training remained fanatic. A gym friend suggested Dawn try a triathlon and she did. Then she bought the right gear. The garage was full of her stuff. One wall was tacked with pictures of trails cut into hillsides or winding through forests. She printed monthly training schedules. She entered lotteries for the more exclusive qualifying events, her aim to compete at Kona.

Look, she said to Jack when he’d yelled about the credit card bill. Look, it’s either sport or pills.

Pills are covered!

Well, this should be too. It’s keeping me happy.

And that’s what she told herself, that the fifteen mile rides, ten mile runs, hour long lap swims: they were keeping her alive. She believed it. So when the metallic tinge came back for a third time, Dawn broke her taper and ran. The marathon in May was only a kind of practice run for the Ironman in July. Skipping a taper would simulate complete exhaustion legs felt after a two point four mile swim and a one hundred twelve mile ride.

She knew she should stop when the tendons fanning over the top of her foot burned to the touch. Dawn pressed her thumb the length of each metatarsal. No pinpoint pain. She kept running.

When the kids were still small enough, she pushed them in the baby jogger. Lauren and Caleb babbled or talked or sang for the first mile or two and then lulled in toddler contemplation. Dawn pushed them in the baby jogger until they were four. They got heavy, the two of them together. She wanted them to hurry up and learn to ride a bike so she could take them to the track where they’d loop while she did intervals or sprints. By the time Dawn was getting into triathlons, the kids were in school and she was back to work full time. She woke while it was still dark, to train without abandoning Jack and the kids in the evenings.

Dawn licked the inside of the diced tomato can. It was close enough. The orange fringe she saw when she closed her eyes at night, like a mum. A mum that edged out everything else, all shades of orange. It wasn’t fire. It wasn’t hot. But it suffocated. She lay in bed tasting metal and pushing against the orange fringe, trying to paralyze herself with deep breathing and prayer. The fringe pressed itself closer closer. It was everything she didn’t want to think about on her miles past cow pastures and soy bean fields.

And for weeks now, this fringe had pressed in on her during the day. Just now, when she’d been slicing the white onion, Dawn had to stop for a minute, stare out the window at the still dead lawn. She’d had to put down the knife, let something else come into her mind. Not everything.

Her foot really hurt, just standing. Dawn decided to finish the lasagna and go for a run. She hurried through the layers and covered the dish with foil, made room in the fridge.

 

Dawn ran north, each step a sparkle of pain on the top of her foot. She turned on a narrow crowned road and ran toward the county line marked by a small green sign. There was a corner she called hers. She’d found it on one of her first long runs, when she’d been out of breath and stopped to stretch. She’d looked up and seen that no one was around. No long gravel drive to a hidden house, no field entrance. She’d hear or see a car in time to resume running or duck into the windbreak. Once or twice a month, on a weekend run, she came here to think. For ten minutes or twenty, she’d look up at the sky or cut through the windbreak to stare at the field or squat to examine tiny rocks tarred to the road.

It was almost noon when Dawn made it to the corner. She cut into the windbreak to relieve herself, pulled her running tights up as a car passed. She watched from the windbreak as the vehicle dipped and surfaced on the retreating hills. Her foot was broken. She was sure of it. She flexed the toes, toward and away from her shin. Knowing what would happen – a splinter of white – she jumped on the injured foot. A gray knot in her stomach now and the orange fringe at her shoulder. She was five or so miles from home. She had limped most of the last mile here.

Maybe a rest, she thought, stupidly. A rest wasn’t going to heal the invisible fracture on the second metatarsal. She run through pain before. Splintering shins, a rite of her first marathon training. Deep hip pain that came and went. Tight calves. A tight piriformis that tugged her gait to one side. Sparklers under her kneecaps. A knot just under her left shoulder blade. Singing hip flexors. Tendonitis in her ankle. And now her foot. Dawn hopped on the injured foot one more time, to be sure.

There was no service on her phone. She could make it back, she thought, if she went really really slow. Walking was as painful so she went for a limping jog up and down the ribbon of road, out to the wider highway where men driving pickups and large farm equipment raised their hands from the wheels. Dawn raised a hand in return. Her lips were a thin line.

Hold the stride. Keep pace. Land light. Land light. It didn’t matter. Dawn read about a woman competing in an Olympic marathon who broke her foot in the first third of the race, finished anyway. Keeping a pace at least twice as fast as Dawn was managing. She adopted the posture she’d seen other runners take in the last miles of a marathon, quit looking up, shuffling her steps. Two miles, she said aloud, when she only had that far to go. If she stopped, she’d lay down.

She was dizzy and thirsty. She got home an hour before Jack and the kids would come in the door. Faking it was impossible. In the shower she balanced on her good foot. She put on her bathrobe and made a sandwich in the kitchen. Now the pain was big enough to keep the fringe away. The pain was shaped like a spiral, rotating up her body from one tiny point, and continuing its twist over her head.

It was only a stress fracture. She was pretty sure. She pressed her thumbs the length of each metatarsal. Her second, a small bump already formed, the healing process started. She pressed until her vision went white. Six weeks rest, minimum. Swimming, the elliptical. Dawn thought she should have done this years ago, lay on the couch and prop her feet up, watch her pain change colors. If she moved, she’d throw up.

Jack and the kids came home.

You really weren’t feeling well, he said when she opened her eyes. She smiled. She said she was okay. Caleb noticed her foot first, swollen. He poked it.

What happened? Lauren asked.

I broke it. It’s a little broken.

How do you know? Caleb asked.

I can’t walk on it. There’s a bump. Here. Dawn took Caleb’s hand and pressed his fingers on the bump. Feel that? He nodded. It’s already healing, she said. Wow, he said.

Jack didn’t think it was wow. He wanted to know if she needed to go to the clinic. Dawn felt like she’d had a glass of wine. She smiled. No, no clinic. It’s fine. I’ll call in tomorrow too. That and the weekend, I’ll be able to walk by Monday.

You’re kidding, Jack said.

No. Monday. It’s only a tiny stress fracture. A stress reaction. The bones break a little and heal stronger.

Jack shook his head. You need to take a break, he said.

I am.

No marathon.

No marathon.

I mean it, Jack said, even if you think you can gut it out. You can’t do it.

I know, she said.. The pain shimmered a little.

 

They ate the lasagna. Lauren and Caleb like the cheddar and Swiss. Dawn read a stack of bedtime books, in no rush to add a last core workout to the day. She walked on her heel back to the living room where Jack had the tv on mute, two beers on the coffee table, a pile of math tests. She sat close to Jack, put her feet on the coffee table. They drank half a beer each before Jack asked if she’d made sub plans for tomorrow. She would, in a minute.

You don’t have to keep doing this to yourself, he said. He touched gently.

I’m so tired, she said. She didn’t say she was afraid. The initial spiral of pain had melted to a gray fog. Dawn couldn’t see the orange fringe from where she was, but she guessed it was near. She guessed it was waiting for the fog to drift. Right now, on the couch with a beer sweating in her hand, with her sad swollen foot propped on a pile of math tests, with her husband tracing circles on her thigh, the gray fog was thick enough to protect her from what the orange fringe had been pressing her to see: that she was failing at nearly everything. And now, she’d also failed at strength. Dawn breathed in the gray fog, burrowed into Jack’s shoulder. She need him to tell her it was okay, even if it wasn’t. Even when the fog lifted and her second metatarsal healed and she began running again, to her corner, where she’d invite the fringe to fight, where she’d scream at the sky and windbreak, throw clods of dirt from the field in the air, stand in dirt rain.

Dawn sat up, pulled away from Jack.

Hey, he said, What’s wrong?

Nothing. Nothing. Dawn got up and walked on her heel to the kitchen, opened the door to the garage. The cement floor was cold. She didn’t need her corner for this. She lowered herself carefully, on a yoga mat surrounded by weights. She sat with her legs stretched in front of her, like she might row away. The fog was gone. She was clear. She waited for the fringe. She wasn’t pushing back with another mile. Dawn sat and waited. Jack came to see. Dawn was still, speaking quietly.

I am not, she said. I am not.

I am, she said. I am.

She hit the floor with flat hands. She said more loudly, I am I am I am.

Jack took a step toward Dawn. She opened her eyes and looked at him. She said, I am okay. I am. He nodded. She said, Just like this, right? He nodded again. She said, I can’t keep trying harder. I’ve been trying harder for –

Jack reached her and knelt. He touched her swollen foot. He kissed her forehead. He pulled her to him. They sat on the cold floor like that, Jack playing with Dawn’s hair. Neither spoke. The fringe hovered near. It wouldn’t go. It would make Dawn look over edges, into dark holes. It would press her against walls and paralyze her in the open. She’d been wrong to think anything – tiny pills taken once a day, long runs, training – could kill the fringe. She prayed, pulled scraps of peace. The fringe was too patient.

I’m going to go to it, Dawn whispered.

What? Jack leaned back a little.

I’m tired. I’m just going to go through it this time. I need to know I can make it.

Jack didn’t really understand. He never had. Early in their marriage he’d come into their bedroom to find Dawn whispering prayers. She’d looked up at him, startled. I’m sorry, she said, I like to pray. It helps. Jack hadn’t known what to say. She tried a joke. If we were in Salem, I’d be tried for witchcraft, praying like it hurts.

She’d tried to explain the fringe then but he hadn’t understood. After the babies were born, he understood a little. When Dawn started running every day, he imagined she was running from the battle she’d been waging early in their marriage, when he’d found her praying and she’d made that awful joke. He imagined she was winning, even as he watched her limp or wince at a stretch. Her body got lean and hard, like an adolescent boy.

I can’t run it away this time, Dawn said. She looked at Jack. I need you, she said, It’s going to hurt. Already Dawn could see the knives. Jack nodded like he got it. She could see. She would flay herself on fear and doubt, pray like it hurt. Jack couldn’t know that yet. She looked at him like she’d looked at the babies, tenderly, with more love than she’d had a minute earlier. He helped her up. She couldn’t run this time. A heavy peace landed.

Fiction Workhorse Week Three 4041 Words

I should tell you where I found the workhorse model. In “The Getaway Car,” Ann Patchett talked about one of her professors who required  students to write one story a week. Later in the essay, Patchett said writing (and rewriting and rewriting) articles for magazines made her a workhorse.

Oh, and I should tell you I used a first sentence I posted months ago. Go find what’s languishing in your notebook or files, waiting.


It Happened Like That

The photo Tim showed me was creased, a line from hair to chin. He pointed to the man’s cupid lips and then to his own. “I think this is my father,” he said.

“Where’d you find him?”

“In my mom’s underwear drawer.”

I blushed. Tim knew his mom did that to his friends. She had Tim when she was sixteen and anyone who didn’t know thought she was the older sister. He punched my arm. “Sorry,” I said. “You want to know what else I found?” he asked. I shook my head. I’d gone through my own mom’s underwear drawer once, big white cotton flags you could send up in surrender, nesting nude bras. Mrs. Hayes picked up Burger King on the way to watch our soccer games. She made Tim let me choose what to watch when I was at their house. Knowing she wore boring underwear or lacy bits, either way, I’d die.

“What makes you think he’s your dad?”

“Look at us!” Tim held the picture up, tried on the somber gaze of the man. I shrugged. “It is,” he said, “You know it is.”

“Then who is he?”

“My dad.”

“You don’t know his name.”

“Not yet.”

“You tell your mom?” I said that just as Mrs. Hayes pulled up in Carl’s Mustang. Tim put the photo in his backpack, put a finger to his lips. Mrs. Hayes leaned across the front seat and opened the door.

 

We were fourteen, the summer before we started freshman year at St. Peter’s. We were skinny kids, two only children who’d made one another siblings in elementary school. In sixth grade, Tim told me Carl wasn’t his real dad. He’d only just found out, overhearing a conversation between his mom and Carl. He looked like he was going to cry. It was a bad time for Tim to find out his dad was not his father. He started calling Carl Carl.

Later, in college, Tim told me how dumb he felt. “I should have known as soon as I did math,” he said. His mom married Carl when Tim was a toddler and he had no memories of life without a dad. In sixth grade, whenever Tim got mad at his mom he screamed about the lie he’d been living. It wasn’t a lie, though, just a kind of fragile armor. They had the same last name. Carl tickled and wrestled Tim. The two of them went fishing up north. Carl didn’t change. He was always kind. After one fight I was there for, Tim and Mrs. Hayes ran to their rooms, slamming doors, leaving Carl and me at the kitchen table. Carl sighed, slumped a little. He dished casserole onto our plates, bowed his head in silent grace. When he looked up he said, “Sometimes I forget. He looks like me, you know?”

Tim did look a little like Carl. The same coarse straw colored hair. Wiry build. I wondered if that was what Mrs. Hayes saw in Carl, a good substitute.

 

A year or two before we started high school, Mrs. Hayes met with a class of tenth grade girls. She talked about the holiness of marriage. She emphasized abstinence with her own teen pregnancy as a prop. This one assembly proved popular enough with the school administration that Mrs. Hayes was invited back each spring. When we were sophomores, Mrs. Hayes told Tim she wouldn’t go if he didn’t want her to. “Everyone knows, Mom,” he said. Neither of us were dating girls anyway. A year later when Tim got a girlfriend, Katie stopped his hand at her waistband. “Your mom,” she whispered, “Made me sign a purity pledge.”

Tim told me about that when we were in our first year of college together. Our childhood fantasy of sharing a room worked out okay at first. The day we moved in, our moms took us out for lunch while my dad and Carl built the lofts. The two of us were sitting across from the women who’d made us both dinner, cheered equally from the sidelines, put up with our shit, as my mom said. Mrs. Hayes would never say “shit.” The diner was full of parents having last lunches with their kids, all the years gone to this minute hoping everyone had said enough of the right things. I kept looking around, at the girls. I hadn’t gotten a girlfriend in high school.

“Hey,” Mrs. Hayes said. She smiled when I turned to her. “Be careful, okay? Watch out for each other.”

 

Tim liked to drink. This was something I knew but hadn’t been a part of in high school. This was our one split, that and Katie. But now Katie was in Green Bay and Tim had unpacked on one side of the room. The first weekend, he found a group heading to a frat party. He didn’t ask if I wanted to go along. I had this stabbing pain, like maybe we shouldn’t have roomed together, maybe he wanted to do his own thing after all. But when he returned at one in the morning, drunk, I understood why he needed me in the room. I knew his story. I didn’t mind listening to it again.

He’d gotten his father’s name from his mom. He’d begged for years. He punched a hole in the garage drywall. He’d picked the filing cabinet lock. Finally, his mom relented. She said he probably wouldn’t find Alan Smith. She’d barely found him.

“He left before he knew,” Tim said to me in the dark. “Before he knew he had a baby on the way, he was gone. He left.” When Tim talked about Alan or his mom, he’d take long pauses. Sometimes he’d fall asleep in his clothes. Sometimes he’d start talking again and the narrative thread worked into me dream so that I was Tim too, and I was looking for Alan and I despaired that my father had the last name Smith. “Effing Smith! Smith!” Tim said and sometimes laughed, sometimes went sullen at the impossibility of tracking down a man with two common names.

“He’s from Canada,” Tim said, “Which narrows it. By millions.”

Tim put up a map of Canada in our room and started disappearing to the computer lab in the basement, googling Alan Smith Canada. He printed out a list of hundreds. He spent a week narrowing the list by age. This was before Facebook was big so he couldn’t look at pictures. He wasn’t sure it was okay to email or call the Alan Smiths and say maybe they were traveling through Wisconsin nineteen, twenty years ago.

“Mom said he was working, logging maybe. He was twenty-two. Think I can cross off the college professor?” Tim was hunched over a stack of printed pages. It was three in the morning. I had a test at eight. I said that. Tim kicked back his chair and turned off the desk light, stomped into the hall. “Good night, Sleeping Beauty,” he said before slamming the door.

He got a little mean. I didn’t know if it was how much he drank or if it was Alan Smith. I was beginning to think it might be Alan Smith, the nature part growing in thick like Tim’s torso filling out. He didn’t look much like Carl anymore.

 

Every other weekend Tim drove across the state to see Katie. After first semester, I waited for those two or three days of solitude. One Friday night a group of Tim’s friends pounded on the door. A couple of them were already swaying. When they found out Tim was gone, they insisted I come along. “The phantom roomie,” one of them called me, putting an arm around me. We stopped briefly to pick up two girls, each of us doing shots, crowded between two bunks and laughing hysterically. It was like a movie I’d seen.

We walked to a dumpy frat house on the edge of campus, paid five bucks for a red Solo cup, and walked single file down warped steps to the hot, damp basement. I got drunk quickly because I didn’t know how not to. I leaned against a cool cement wall and watched the people around me pair off, disappear. Soon was the only one there who wasn’t in the frat. The guy who’d been pouring tiny shots all night told me they were going to turn the lights on. “Won’t be pretty,” he said, “I think a few people threw up.” I went into the cold night. I wasn’t as drunk as I’d felt in the basement. I put my hands in my pockets and made my way back to the room where I stood in front of Tim’s map and looked at the stars he’d drawn over all the possible addresses his father kept.

The next weekend when all the guys came for Tim, one of them said, “Hey, Phantom, you gotta come along. Come on.” Tim looked at me and shrugged. A couple of beers later, he leaned into me and shouted above the music. “I’m sorry! I was such a dick! I don’t know why!” In third grade, I ate a wood chip from the playground because Tim said he’d do it after me. When I swallowed the last of it, Tim looked very sad and said he couldn’t do it. Maybe he’d always been a little like this. “That’s okay!” I yelled back. We didn’t talk about Alan Smith all night.

 

I didn’t get a girlfriend that year. And Katie broke up with Tim. We packed up for summer, two boys who’d finally gotten to share a room. I was going home to work with my dad but Tim decided to take a road trip through Canada. “You can come, if you like,” he said. I thought about it. I really needed some cash. “You think you’ll find him?” I asked. He shrugged. “What’ll you say?” Tim grinned. “’Daddy? Is that you?’ Scare the fuck outta him.”

He called me twice. The first time, so pleased I thought he’d found the Alan Smith. “No, no. I wish. But this guy, this Alan Smith was really nice. Doesn’t look anything like me. He’s a First Nation. I don’t know how he got a name like this.” The second time, a little whispery, from a pay phone in a vestibule. “I think it’s the Alan Smith. I got a picture.” Later we’d look at that picture – not even the full profile of a man – and the creased photo from his mom’s underwear drawer and go back and forth how likely it was the same man. We saw what we wanted to see, given the night. Both photos were tacked on the map.

 

Mrs. Hayes and Carl surprised us one Friday afternoon. They’d gotten a letter from Tim’s advisor. Tim wasn’t doing well. I wasn’t in the room when they showed up. My stomach goes ice to think what Mrs. Hayes thought when she saw the map, that long ago stolen photo. By the time I got back from my afternoon class, Mrs. Hayes was sitting on the futon, her face splotchy from crying. Carl stood by the window, looking out at the parking lot and a row of trees beyond. Tim was at his desk.

“Did you know?” Mrs. Hayes asked me. I looked at my shoes. “I told you to look out for each other,” she said.

“He just wants to know,” I said, the first time I’d ever talked about Alan Smith with anyone other than Tim.

“He knows enough,” Mrs. Hayes said. Even crying, with smeared make up, she was beautiful. It reminded me of something mean my mom said, about how Mrs. Hayes was only invited to speak to the St. Peter’s girls because she’d made it through pretty.

“The name,” I said. I heard myself say Alan Smith. “Maybe he would like to know he has a son.”

“Would you? After twenty years?”

“I don’t know.”

Carl turned from the window. “I would,” he said, “But we came here about the grades. Tim, we’re worried about you. That’s all.”

“What did I do?” Mrs. Hayes said to Tim. “You have a dad. You went to a good school. What are you doing?”

“Mom. I’ve said it. I just want to find him. I love Carl –”

“But what did I do?” Mrs. Hayes’s hands were fists in her lap and tears ran down her face again. Tim got really still. I knew what he was going to say. He’d said it to me after nights of drinking. What his mom did. He said, “You fucked a transient man six years older than you, Mom.” Carl took a step forward. I think Tim wanted to be hit. Mrs. Hayes slid from the futon to the floor, kneeling at Tim’s feet, her hands covering her face, sobbing. When she stood up, she looked at Tim and said, “I wouldn’t take it back.”

“You didn’t have to say it like that,” I said, after. Tim stayed in his chair, clenching and unclenching his fists.

 

He dropped out at semester. I returned from winter break to find a Korean roommate. The next year I moved off campus and invited Tim to come back, take a job in LaCrosse. By then, he’d decided to get his commercial license and drive rigs across North America. For a few years he emailed occasionally. He came to my wedding, sent postcards from places I’d never been. When I moved my family to Colorado, I emailed our new address but didn’t hear back. No postcards. A few more years went by like that. When we went back to Wisconsin, I drove by Tim’s house. I didn’t see Mrs. Hayes or Carl. The last time I’d spoken with either was at my wedding. When my parents bought a house in Phoenix, we had no reason to return to my hometown.

My wife answered the phone one Saturday and put a hand over her mouth, passed the receiver to me. It was Mrs. Hayes, telling me that Tim died yesterday, an accident north of Winnepeg. I listened. I couldn’t speak. When I hung up I found my wife already booking a plane ticket. My parents flew to Wisconsin too, the three of us staying at the Holiday Inn. Mrs. Hayes asked if I’d speak at the memorial. Tim didn’t want a mass. I don’t remember what I said. I had an idea before I went up, a few lines on a piece of hotel paper, but I can’t remember if I said what I wanted to. I said he was a brother. When I said that I looked out at Mrs. Hayes and Carl, the two people who might have loved him more than I did.

I hadn’t missed him as much as I could have. Being in our hometown again, that made me remember what I lost. He was a brother. I kept thinking that. And I saw him everywhere. By the fourth day, I wanted to go back to Colorado, to my own wife and boys. I didn’t want to keep seeing Tim. I felt like I’d said goodbye years ago. I thought Tim would live on wherever he was, driving lines across a map, drinking black coffee, reading paperbacks in his bunk. I pictured him like that, away and alone, but alive. Now that he was dead, I didn’t want to see him at all. I’d rather he stay the brother I found in grade one.

It would’ve been rude to leave without saying goodbye to his parents. I parked the rental in front of their house and rang the doorbell. I couldn’t remember ever ringing the bell before. Mrs. Hayes answered. She stepped aside and I went in to the house that’d been my second home all of my growing up. They had a new dining table and living room set. The pictures on the walls were the same. A new TV. Carl got up from the recliner, extended his hand. “Appreciate what you said,” he said. I nodded. He gestured for me to sit and Mrs. Hayes went to the kitchen for drinks.

“Laura was hoping you’d come by,” he said, “She has something to show you.”

Mrs. Hayes came in with a tray, sodas and glasses with ice cubes. She pushed aside a stack of sympathy cards on the coffee table. “Here you go,” she said and smiled. She wasn’t wearing any make up and that made her look softer.

“Laura, I said you had something,” Carl said.

“Oh. Yes, I do. Just let me.” Mrs. Hayes poured half a can of Pepsi in a glass and handed it to me. She came back a moment later with an envelope. I set my glass down. The letter was handwritten, Tim’s cramped print. He found Alan Smith in Sudbury. He was sure it was the right Alan Smith because one of the sons looked like Tim. I could feel Mrs. Hayes watching me. Tim decided not to approach his father. Having found the Alan Smith, he wrote, he wasn’t sure which line of the many he’d rehearsed would come out of his mouth. After a day thinking, he left Sudbury, having only driven by the Smith house a few times, catching glimpses of his father’s life. He ended the letter saying he wouldn’t contact Alan Smith but if you want to, here is his address.

I turned the envelope over to check the postmark. A couple of years ago. “Did you?” I asked. Mrs. Hayes shook her head. “I wish I had,” she whispered. Carl said, “I didn’t think it was a good idea.”

“I didn’t think so either, at the time,” Mrs. Hayes said, “But now.”

“We’ll probably write a letter, send a picture,” Carl said.

“I could go,” I said. I remembered all the stars on Tim’s map. One must have been on Sudbury. I could change my flight, take the rental up for a few days. I said all of this on the phone to my wife while Mrs. Hayes packed a small cooler with food. It was midafternoon and if I left now, I could make it to Canada before it got too late. Spend a whole day driving east to Sudbury. Meet Alan Smith. Give him a photo of Tim, tell him what his boy had been like.

I didn’t think about what I would actually say. I stopped at a hotel and showered, watched tv until I fell asleep. I left before the hotel staff had finished setting out the breakfast muffins and cereals. The highway was roughed up by winters, stretches of it potholed. I drove through and around little towns. I stopped for coffee at a Tim Horton’s. Around noon I checked GPS. I had at least another six. I wanted to stop. I thought I could finish the trip tomorrow. It was midweek. Alan Smith must work. I couldn’t just show up at his house at eight a.m. anyway. But I continued, made to the edge of Sudbury.

I checked into the hotel and called my wife. I thought about calling Mrs. Hayes, but there was nothing to tell her. I walked down the street to a fast food place and ate a tray of onion rings, had a milkshake. Back in my room, I took a shower and turned on the TV, turned it off. I thought about my boys. And about Tim. A single vehicle accident. I looked at my phone. Ten days ago now. When we were kids, that was as long as we were ever apart, when our families took vacations.

 

The Smith house was an old two-story with a small porch and cracked sidewalk. I parked out front at seven in the morning, hoping I might catch Alan on his way to work. I watched the front door.

This is how it would go: Alan Smith and his wife would pause their morning. They’d send their youngest son out the door. Tim would be right. I’d see Tim in the boy’s features as he looked from his parents to me, then back at his dad to be sure it was okay to go. After he left, Alan’s wife – Janet maybe – would pour coffees and set out cream and the three of us would sit at table waiting for each of us to stir in the right amount of creamer.

Do you remember a girl named Laura Brillowski? I’d ask.

Alan’s brow would furrow. He’d run a hand through his hair, looking for a recollection. I’d wait a minute. Janet would ask what this was about. From Wisconsin? I’d say, Late seventies, like ’78?

Alan would shake his head. He didn’t remember. He’d apologize because this was clearly important to me. Janet would ask him if this was when he was pulping wood in the U.P. but it was another summer. Janet would ask again what this was all about. Then I’d have to say it. I’d have to say that Laura Brillowski had a son nine months after Alan had gone on, to the U.P. or wherever. That she’d married a man named Carl and they raised the boy as their own.

But Tim – that’s your son’s name, I’d say – Tim found a picture of Alan and then the name of his father. He looked for you for years. He found you, I’d say.

Alan’s hand would be too shaky to pick up his coffee cup. Janet would squint her eyes and ask if I was speaking in the third person, if I was a crazy. She might even half stand to find her mobile buried in her purse.

I’d have to raise my hands a little, show peace. No, I’d say, Tim was my best friend growing up, like a brother. I only just heard he found you. He told his mom – Laura.

Alan would pull a memory from a trip he and a few boys took on a rare long weekend. He would remember Laura’s lips like berries. He would tell Janet it was okay. He hadn’t known Laura’s last name. He hadn’t thought. It happened like things do, kids going to an old cabin on a lake. She was there. It happened like that.

Janet would bow her head. Alan would ask if I brought a picture and I’d show him one of Tim in our first year of college. It looked a lot like the one of Alan Tim kept. Alan would bring the picture closer. He’d put a hand over his mouth. Janet would lean over to see. They’d forget that I talked about Tim in the past tense and I’d have to tell them they couldn’t meet him. And then, watching them sit with that birth and death in the space of fifteen minutes, I would know I’d made a mistake. I’d understand why Tim only drove by the house, caught a glance at the man who’d fathered him and gone on to have more children he loved because he knew them.

Coming in late and unknown, it wasn’t fair. Tim must have decided that. It wasn’t fair to Alan Smith or his wife or his kids. If Tim had never learned this truth, not the worst truth to learn, but one that couldn’t go away, where would he be? Alan didn’t know yet, didn’t walk around carrying Tim. For Alan, it was all done when it happened like that.

 

The front door opened and a lanky teenager jumped down the step and walked down the street. A couple of minutes later, a woman in a pantsuit carrying an oversize leather bag walked across the lawn in her heels and got into a Honda, backed down the drive and didn’t look my way at all. Then Alan Smith came out and it was like looking at Tim, if Tim made it to sixty. He wore old jeans and a flannel, carried a lunchbox cooler. His pickup grumbled and backed down the drive. Smith Remodeling & Restoration stenciled white on red. I don’t think he saw me either. I sat for a while longer, then programmed the GPS for the long drive back.