17 Jun
2014

On Finally Finishing The Tale of Genji

From Wikimedia: A hand scroll painting dated circa 1130, illustrating a scene from the "Bamboo River" chapter of the Tale of Genji.

The Tale of Genji. Sounds so romantic. Who can resist a story about Heian aristocrats, written in prose as elegant and luxurious as the period’s court costumes? Pages and pages of aesthetic delights, the celebration of romance, poetry, flowers, Genji (the tale’s hero) so beautiful, surely even the moon is envious.

Right.

Okay, this is what the book is really about: rich men behaving badly. Really, really badly. Like gross frat bros who stalk, kidnap, rape and even groom girls. This is a shocking book. I have never read a book with so many rapes and sexual assaults. It’s just an endless series of woman hunting.

Three, four hundred pages into it, I was left puzzling. I mean this book was written by a woman. Why would a woman write so elegantly, even sympathetically, about the adventures of douches whose main hobby is preying on young girls and women? (Interestingly, there is only one mention of a woman sexual predator and she’s played for cruel laughs).

Then, somewhere around page 900, I started to realize it wasn’t about the boys but about the girls. The Tale of Genji is really The Wail of Women. It builds, slowly, tear by tear, the very first tale about Genji’s mother, a gentle woman who dies from the sheer stress of court life. Specifically, she’s driven to death by the bullying of other women. Why is she bullied? Because the emperor loves her. And because she doesn’t have powerful male relatives to back her up.

So, The Tale of Genji is the tale of just how vulnerable a woman becomes when she lives in a society where women are completely dependent on men. If a man wants her, and his position is high enough, even the wife of the emperor is not safe from his advances. And that man can be anyone, even a stepson. Her only escape is the nunnery or death. (And the nunnery isn’t that safe: the book ends on a cliffhanger involving a nun who’s just too beautiful for her own good. And let’s get this straight: the douches will tell you that it’s always the girl’s fault, for being beautiful, for not being nice, for playing hard to get, etc.)

In the book, life is such hell for women, they usually don’t survive past the age of 35. If a man doesn’t drive her to death, the vengeful ghost of a rival will. Sure you get to wear awfully pretty clothes, but who the hell wants to marry your rapist to avoid a scandal? And that’s if you’re lucky because more often than not you’ll just become a secret mistress holed up in the middle of nowhere. And you won’t get any sympathy because even your mother will tell you how lucky you are to have been taken up by such an important and beautiful man. Yup. That’s some kinda reality there. (A really disturbing part of the book describes the bewilderment of a young girl as her kidnapper and groomer begins transitioning her from playing with toys to sex. And who is this groomer? Our hero Genji. But it’s all good because he’s so beautiful. Granted, the idea of beauty is complicated. In Heian times, beauty was considered a kind of karmic prize you got for being so good in a previous life. But what about this life, I kept wondering? The way Genji acts throughout the book, he’ll be lucky if he’s reborn as a hyena. I’m not saying he’s all bad. Out of pity he collects and adopts downtrodden ex-lovers, housing them at his great estate like he’s running a petting zoo. He’ll even occasionally visit them for a nice chat.)

BTW, the edition I read was the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition translated by Royall Tyler. Great edition with footnotes as overflowing as the hair of a great Heian beauty. The footnotes are essential—you need them to keep track of who’s who. Really. Characters are often referred to by their court/job titles, which change since people get promoted or die. And then suddenly old characters are known by new titles and old titles are referring to new characters. Confusing as hell, I’m telling you. A quarter of the time, I had no idea who the writer was talking about. Especially when there’s a new paragraph and there’s only a “she” or “he” and you’re thinking, “Who she?” since there could be two or three people “she” could be.

Since I mentioned page 900, I’m sure you realize that this book is big. And heavy. I injured my thumb trying to read it in bed. Took months to heal; the book took months to read. Why isn’t this an ebook?

9 May
2014

Contentment

Bob had been sitting in the car for over twenty minutes. Parked up on the next hill, he had a good view of Dulcey’s house. He’d come to feel responsible for the house. Like a good family doctor. With care, houses could last forever. Bob’s thinking was that a house like Dulcey’s should last only as long as the love did. Another year, Bob thought, another year and then he’d repaint. Some of the upstairs window frames needed repair. He’d do it all in one go. It was a grand house and he loved the feel of it.

He started the car and drove home full of contentment.

Carol’s car was in the garage. Surprised, Bob bounced into the house and grabbed Carol by the waist, giving her a messy smooch on her cheek.

“My, you’re in a good mood,” Carol said.

“So I am, so I am.” He gave her another kiss.

“You want to go over to Dulcey’s for dinner?” Carol didn’t see Dulcey as much as she would have liked. With her new job at the museum and all her volunteer work, she had even less time now than when the kids had been little. She missed her piano lessons. She’d start again soon.

“When do they expect us?” Bob asked.

“Around eight. Why?”

“I wanted to know if we have time,” he said. “And we do.”

He threw Carol over his shoulder and took her into the bedroom. On the bed he tickled her until she was crying with laughter. And then the tickles became caresses, the fingers, lips. The love they made was very quick, very hungry. The rest of the hour they spent lying together, holding hands. They were like warm little radiators.

Rain began to fall as they drove to Dulcey’s. Hand in hand they ran towards the house. Little droplets of rain covered the button of Carol’s nose. Bob wiped them away tenderly with his thumb. Carol put her hand around Bob’s neck and kissed him passionately.

 

This is an excerpt from Anchored Leaves, available as both paperback and ebook at Amazon and Barnes & NobleBuy a copy!

4 May
2014

Stories of Love Under a Full Moon

Chris was head over heels in love. He’d never been in love before. There had been all his crushes, but those had been warm buzzes of joy.

“I wish—I wish you knew what it was like, Penny. I wish you’d fall in love so I could talk to you about it.”

Penny thought that was a lousy reason for wishing someone in love. She didn’t trust love somehow. Everything she’d heard about it made her afraid. Like Dulcey and Cal. Dulcey was still in love with Cal, and yet he’d broken her heart. At first because she’d been too much a baby, and then later, when he’d died. Heartache was love, happiness imagined later, to make sense of love. Dulcey’s eyes still lit up thinking of Cal. Love twisted things around.

Chris and Penny were sitting on the opposite ends of the porch swing, where minutes before Chris had found Penny curled up fetus-fashion reading a book. She seemed so much a world within herself that he’d almost walked away.

“She’s so beautiful,” he said, the statement a cresting of all his newfound emotions. Love hunched him over, as if it was just too much for his body to bear. He looked up to see what Penny thought; she was smiling, not for him, but about some thought he was bound by only in its periphery.

“What are you smiling about?” he asked gently.

“Oh—” This brought her back to him. “I was just thinking—someone once told me that being in love was like having butterflies in your heart and Megan said—” Penny stopped. It was the earnestness on Chris’s face. He wouldn’t understand.

“I guess it’s sort of like that,” Chris said, trying to find a way for Penny to understand. “Only it’s more like someone grabbing you from the inside. It’s wonderful.”

Penny listened, quieting her hesitations. They sat together twenty, thirty minutes before Chris got up to go.

“I just wanted you to know how I felt,” he said, smiling enough to turn the whole world pink. Penny stared after him. She was unhappy and sat by herself thinking. When she went inside, she was glad Megan was at the breakfast nook. Spook was on her lap and she was reading a cookbook, her reading glasses slipped halfway down her nose. There was an impression of parody, of an old-fashioned storybook grandmother.

“Chris gone?” she asked, looking up. Penny nodded, sitting down next to her.

“Megan, what do you do when someone’s in love and you know it’s wrong?”

“Wrong? How so?”

“Wrong—wrong for them.” Penny didn’t want to mention Chris, but she didn’t know how else to explain herself. “Chris is in love with this girl we met when we were up at Sequoia—”

“Oh—” Megan said. She closed her book. “Well—you could kidnap him and lock him away for a couple of years.”

“You just have to watch, don’t you?” Penny said.

“I’m afraid so, Penny. Besides, how do you know? You don’t know what two people are like in private, when they’re alone together. There’s no place for wrong or right in a relationship.”

“But sometimes you know, Megan,” Penny said, holding back tears. It seemed so useless to know anything.

Megan felt suddenly dizzy, the air around her spinning. She put her head back and closed her eyes. We’re all in a dance, she thought. Swirling past each other, same steps, same gestures, in and out of ancient patterns, unable to stop, unable to help, except with a quick glance of helpless compassion while the silent music makes us move.

Dulcey walked in, feeling the mood, instinctively knowing its weight.

“It is a full moon, isn’t it?” she said wryly.

They looked out the window, a brilliant stone moon filling a quarter of the sky. Megan and Penny started laughing.

“I was just on the phone with Helen,” Dulcey said. “Penny, your grandfather is doing just fine. Completely his old self, Helen says. Although I don’t know about Helen. She sounds a little odd.”

“In-lawitis. When’s Helen coming back?” Megan asked.

“She wants to stay a couple of more days,” Dulcey replied. “Look at that magnificent moon! Let’s go outside to watch. We used to have the most marvelous moon-viewing parties—dancing to a full moon, reciting poetry, eating moon cakes, making up riddles.”

The three of them sat on the porch and watched the moon crest overhead. The sky was cloudless and black, the moon capturing time. The distance between them and the moon seemed merely an imagining.

This is an excerpt from Anchored Leaves, available as both paperback and ebook at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Buy a copy!

15 Apr
2014

Fog & Dreams

Here’s a poem I wrote on a foggy night. (It’s in the style of Tale of Genji.)

How can one not have
mournful dreams
when foghorns drift in
& out throughout the night?

12 Mar
2014

Happiness


Here, an excerpt from my novella All Married Together:

It was incredible pain. Waves and waves that had Will rolling on the ground screaming. After an hour of mental handholding, Chess took him to the emergency room.

The pain was centered in the lower right quadrant of his abdomen; Will was sure it was appendicitis. He had to lie down. The waiting-room chairs had arms so he went flat on his back on the hospital floor. The pain was slowly progressing into unbearable territory; Will thought he was going to throw up. The restroom was two yards away. There was constant traffic between Will and the restroom.

Chess knelt beside him. The nurses weren’t happy that Will was on the dirty floor but they left him alone. The big clock above him ticked away as the large double doors near his head opened and closed, gurneys with injured people sliding past him.

They’d been in the emergency room for almost an hour: there was a baby that couldn’t stop screaming and the faint smell of vomit in the air. A group of Japanese came in, all wearing face masks. The emergency room was just half full. Patients seemed mostly healthy except for the baby and a young woman who was burning up with fever. Her boyfriend had her wrapped up in his arms. Mysteriously, the Japanese were herded away into another building.

Through an intercom Will’s name was called. Chess helped him walk through those large double doors and into an examining room where a male nurse had him change his clothes before helping him onto a bed. Will shivered fiercely in the hospital gown.

“Let me get you some blankets,” the nurse said. “There. Better? Good. We tend to keep things cold. I know it’s awful but it keeps the germ count down.”

Will kept gripping the metal guards surrounding the bed, half rising in pain, almost as if he were about to give birth.

“We’ll get the doctor to see you as soon as possible,” the nurse said. He was so cheerful, so patient, so reassuring, so familiar. “And then we’ll pump you up with meds and get you as comfortable as we can. Just hold on a few more minutes.”

Will nodded.

Meanwhile a hospital staff officer came with a thick packet of financial and legal paperwork to be signed. Will was in no state to read legalese, so Will opted to give Chess his power of attorney.

“You’re sure you want her to have it?” the officer asked. “Because she’ll make all the decisions from now on.”

And Will said with contentment, “I can’t think of anyone better.”

“We’re married,” Chess explained. The officer smiled, happy with the answer.

The doctor came. He asked Will five questions. He seemed to have diagnosed Will’s condition with one look, the questions basic and redundant. “Kidney stones, most likely. But we’ll get you scanned just to be sure.”

The diagnosis was a go signal for the nurse. Within five minutes, Will was pumped full of Toradol, Dilaudid and Zofran.

“Dilaudid,” Will said, giving a thumbs up to the nurse.

“Almost worth getting kidney stones for that,” the nurse joked. “Now how do you feel? On a scale of one to five, one being no pain and five being pretty lousy.”

“I’d say three. Going on two,” Will reported.

“That’s what we like to hear,” the nurse said, happy. “If the pain gets to four, call me, and we’ll get you back down to three. We want you to be comfortable but we don’t want you floating off to space, if you know what I mean.”

On the drugs, Will felt very calm. He’d thought the drugs would make him drowsy but he felt fully alert and at peace. Will wasn’t sure if he’d ever felt like this, his thoughts remarkably tranquil.

“I’m surprised I’m not still in the waiting room,” he said to Chess. “I got treated so quickly.”

“You jumped the line. There were several people ahead of you, including the screaming baby and a woman who was burning up with fever. I think it was because you were lying on the floor moaning. That really helped your cause.”

“I’ll have to remember that the next time I’m in the emergency room. I don’t think I could have planned it any better.”

“Kidney stones. I thought it was going to be something serious. I was sure they’d be wheeling you off to surgery. You had me really worried.”

“Me too. I had no idea kidney stones were this painful.”

“I think we must have the world’s most cheerful nurse,” Chess remarked.

“Is it the drugs or does that nurse seem really familiar?” Will asked. “I feel like I know him or something.”

“I keep thinking the same thing,” Chess said. “Oh! I know. He looks just like that actor—you know, the one we saw in that movie last week. That comic.”

“Yeah. He could be the guy’s twin brother,” Will agreed. “You don’t think it’s the actor doing research?”

“Maybe that’s why he was so liberal with the drugs,” Chess joked.

Will held Chess’s hand with gratitude and love.

“I’ve put you through a lot,” he said. “You must be tired. You haven’t even had a chance to eat dinner. Why don’t you sit down. It might take a while to get the scan.”

Chess agreed. There was a chair near the foot of the bed. She was still feeling jet-lagged from her trip to South America—she’d met so many people, visited so many farms and factories—her body buzzed with the trip’s vibrations and she couldn’t keep her eyes open, thoughts lost in the background noise of the hospital.

The tiny examining room was near the ambulance entrance. The corridor was busy, firemen and police, people in traumatic distress, gurneys and the sound of their wheels against the hard floor. Nurses and paramedics joked about sandwiches, their attempts at sneaking away for late dinner breaks, a quick smoke. Will’s first wave of pain had attacked him around five that evening. It was already ten.

Outside, in the corridor, a new struggle was beginning. There was an elderly man, six foot two, weighing maybe two hundred and thirty pounds. He kept arguing with the nurses: “Where’s my sweater? Someone took my wallet. Someone took my wallet! Where’s my sweater?”

“Sir, you have to stay on the gurney. We don’t want you to fall again.”

“I know what’s going on,” the man said. His voice was choking with anxiety. “You’re all in on it. Someone took my wallet.”

“Please get back on the gurney!”

He struggled to find himself. The nurses tried to soothe him; they asked him questions about where he lived: “Yes, yes, I live alone. My wife died. That was years ago. I live alone now. I used to teach. At the college. I have an apartment. I’ve lived here a long, long time. But it’s not really an apartment.”

Several times the man tried to force himself out of the gurney, but lacking strength, became entangled instead. Frustrated, the staff began threatening him, treating him as if he were a very large, very naughty child. Terrified, he refused to speak again, moaning, “Leave me alone, leave me alone.”

After this, for a long stretch, there was only quiet.

Will watched Chess. She was soundly asleep, fatigue creating shadows on her face. He remembered that first time she was asleep in his arms, on the floor of the airport, the blizzard raging away. They shared so many memories now, Chess and Will, tiny unremarkable memories that came surging through him as pure joy. His sorrow was that he hadn’t married Chess years and years before. Then regret dissolved and time was no longer relevant: in a total compression of heart and soul, his memory claimed Chess from the very beginning of his birth. Yes, he’d known Chess all his life and he was going to know and love her for a fourth year and a fifth year and a sixth year and on and on until all the years were a suspension of love and happiness.

A young orderly came in and asked, “So, you ready for a ride?”

Chess woke up. She felt as if she hadn’t slept at all, just merely floated along with the consciousness of the hospital.

“Is it all right for me to come?” she asked, gathering all their possessions.

“Sure,” the orderly said, getting ready to push the hospital bed out into the corridor.

Chess walked alongside the bed as Will and the orderly cheerfully bantered together. Will was still hooked up to his meds, still calm, still relaxed. Chess couldn’t help smiling. Which was strange. Everything felt strange, like she was hooked up to Will’s meds too. Maybe she was dreaming. But she liked it. Because for the first time, she actually felt married. To Will. That she and Will were really married. And she smiled and smiled. She and Will were all married together now.

“What are you laughing about?” Will asked.

“Nothing. I’ll tell you later,” Chess said. “Later, when we’re home.”

“Home. I can’t wait.”

Their home together.

All Married Together is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble as an ebook.

6 Jan
2014

Women Writing Woes

Today I was reading Flavorwire’s interesting post on Jennifer Weiner and her difficult position in the debate about women writers. The post is also a dissection of Rebecca Mead’s Weiner profile in The New Yorker (Mead is one of my favorite writers, BTW—been a fan for years [even fact-checked a piece of hers and found her to be really nice, which you can't say about most writers]).

Both the post and article talk about genre fiction versus “literary” fiction. Genre fiction, like chick lit and what’s known as “commercial” women’s fiction have plucky, likable heroines and a happy ending. Most people like and want genre fiction. Thinking about this made me realize that most literary agents are also genre fiction readers. So many of my own novels have been turned down by agents because they didn’t think my heroines were plucky or likable. (The plucky thing seems to be very American.)

Alas. I have to agree with Claire Messaud when she says you’re in deep trouble if you’re reading to find friends. And as Michelle Dean writes in her Flavorwire post, “Many women are not safe, relaxing, and fun personalities, and it is a little strange, and constricting, and even stultifying, that we are afraid of seeing them be so messy in books.”

31 Oct
2013

Trick-o’-Caroling

A little something for Halloween!

Picking a Halloween costume was an art. Early on, Megan and Penny had talked about going as headless ghouls, but somehow the ghouls had gotten lost in Dulcey’s plans. Penny was going as Little Nell. Megan was disappointed.

“What are you going to go as?” Helen asked Megan.

“I don’t know—I don’t think I’m going,” Megan replied. It just seemed too much of a bother. She’d stay home with The Tale of Genji. And a vodka martini.

“Of course, you’re going.” Sometimes it was as if Megan was Helen’s second child.

“What are you going as?” Megan asked, looking for inspiration.

“Cleopatra. Want to see the costume? I picked it up last night.” Helen had wanted to surprise everyone but she couldn’t wait. Her costume was too good, a gown threaded with gold and silver, a five-pound wig for a crown—just thinking about it made her feel regal. “I’m getting my makeup done at the salon.”

“This wig weighs a ton,” Megan said, putting the wig over her head. “Are you sure you’re going to be able to wear it? You’ll be sweating all evening. You will.”
Helen took the wig away from her.

In the past, all of Megan’s costume decisions had been made with Stella. Alone, she was indecisive and self-defeating.

“Why don’t you go as Mata Hari?” Dulcey suggested. They were all sick of Megan’s waffling.

“I’m too wash-and-dry for that.”

“Nonsense. You’d make a wonderful Mata Hari.”

“Why? What did Mata Hari look like?”

“Dark and mysterious. She enthralled men with her Javanese dance of love.”

“I’ll go as Virginia Woolf.”

“Be Mata Hari, Megan,” Helen commanded.

She resisted Mata Hari, but in the end, it was all she had. The evening of the party she inspected her costume and makeup. The fin de siècle felt hat that hung jauntily at an angle, the fake fur stole, pearls and gloves. Her suit was historically correct to the last detail (it’d taken a week for her to sew it). Her makeup was just as detailed, her face grayish white, her lips blue. She’d made her eyes bloodshot by putting a little vinegar in them. Painful, but necessary. Satisfied, Megan went downstairs to reveal herself.

“I don’t get it,” Helen said.

“I’m Mata Hari.”

“What’s with the makeup?”

“I’m dead. I’m the corpse of Mata Hari.”

“What’s that?” Helen asked, pointing to holes in Megan’s suit.

“Bullet holes.” Megan had borrowed a rifle to riddle her suit. The residue of real gunpowder was absolutely essential. Not just for the look of the powder, but also for the smell of it, the way the powder’s acrid smell wailed its way into the nostrils.

“You’re going to spend all night explaining that,” Helen said.

Dulcey saw the bullet holes and screamed with laughter.

“The question was blood or no blood,” Megan explained. “I thought I’d be tasteful. Just a spray of gunpowder.”

“I think it’s wonderful. Absolutely wonderful! So! What about it, ladies? Shall we proceed?” Dulcey held out her diamanté-studded lorgnette and led the way.

As they neared the Lewiskis’, Dulcey’s heart began to pound. Stage fright. She felt extremely uncomfortable in other people’s homes, unfamiliar stages.
“There! There! We can park there!” She found relief in barking out commands, directing traffic. Getting out of the car, her knees almost buckled, her legs imperceptibly shaking. Penny gave her hand a squeeze. Dulcey squeezed back and walked swiftly towards the house.

Regina was the first to greet her.

“Dulcey, sweet sunshine!”

“Regina!”

“You look amazing, darling.” Regina gave Dulcey a peck on the cheek. Threading her arm through Dulcey’s, she propelled her forward.

Helen lagged behind.

“Helen?” Megan asked. “You okay?”

Overwhelmed by her costume, Helen couldn’t breathe. Sweat was flaking off her gold and silver makeup.

“Just take off the wig,” Megan advised.

“I can’t. It’ll ruin the effect. I’ll be okay.” She didn’t tell Megan she was wearing a corset. Her gown was diaphanous and she’d wanted her body to appear perfect. She held on to Megan, walking slowly up the driveway.

Bob Lewiski waved enthusiastically at them. He looked more Hollywood detective than British inspector, but he did have a magnificent pipe hanging from his lips.

“Lady Fairmouth, I presume?” he said, pretending to write notes in a little black note pad.

Dulcey laughed, delighted. “That pipe! I love that pipe!”

“It was my pop’s. Last time I had it in my mouth, he beat the living daylights out of me. Welcome! Come on in everyone! The gang’s all here.”

“My god!” Dulcey said, surveying the room. “I can’t believe how fantastic everyone looks!”

Stephanie immediately ran towards Dulcey, giving her a huge hug. She was a chocolate chip cookie with a great big chunk missing. Carol had added teeth marks with felt pen.

“Oh, sweetheart, you look fantastic!” Dulcey said, hugging her back.

Megan’s heart dropped. The room was full of Scarletts and Rhetts, Marilyn Monroes and John Waynes. It was Hollywood, not Halloween. She wanted ghouls, headless demons, dead souls reaching for the living. Not a night of play, but a night of experience. She wished she hadn’t come.

Carol Lewiski suddenly popped up with a tray of drinks.

“Drink?” she asked. She was Groucho Marx, her thick electrical-tape eyebrows constantly in motion.

“Yes, thank you.” Megan took a glass and disappeared.

“I think we have a hit,” Dulcey whispered to Carol. “Only—I think everyone’s getting a little too sloshed. Me included. I had a few at lunch with Regina. I can’t believe she’s still standing. That’s one tough cookie.”

“Maybe we should serve dinner?” Carol said.

“The sooner the better, I’d say,” Dulcey agreed.

Carol struck a gong, one-half of some old cymbals Bob had lying around.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, dinner is served.”

The buffet snaked all around the dining room. Dulcey nibbled quietly in a corner, rehearsing lines in her head. A John Wayne came up to her.

“So when’s the fun starting?”

“Start, my dear? What can you possibly mean?” Lady Fairmouth asked, the voice husky and stiff, vowels curdled.

“You know—ah, right,” he said, winking.

It happened as people lingered over coffee. The lights turned off, then on. Startled, people gasped and then laughed in anticipation. Dulcey wailed melodramatically, “My necklace! My necklace! Someone has stolen my necklace!” Inspector Snoop came dashing in. A voice pierced the air— “Someone’s been murdered!” Carol faked a faint. Everyone rushed to say their lines, a free-for-all ensuing as everyone laughed hysterically, Dulcey’s face streaming with tears. Then suddenly a door slammed and the room blackened.

“Penny, sweetheart—you’re not supposed to turn the lights off anymore,” Dulcey called out.

“I didn’t turn the lights off,” Penny said.

Bob made his way to the light switch. “The power’s gone.” He looked out the window. The entire neighborhood was black, except in the glowing orange light of children trick-or-treating, their plastic pumpkins eerily swinging in blackness.

Carol hunted out candles. Bob lit an old hurricane lamp, the light somber, flickering ghosts deflected.

“You had this all planned out!” someone accused Dulcey.

“Not me!” she laughed. And then she found her legs. “It is All Hallows’ Eve, the night the dead become the living. Expect the unexpected. All other nights the ghosts hide inside us, wandering in our imagination, where dark is light and light helpless. Only once, one night out of the whole year, are they too strong to be held in imagination, too irresistible to be dismissed. Boldly they come, boldly into the night, to grab what is theirs and celebrate. What we won’t recognize, what we can’t believe because we are too afraid, is that this one night, they own us. Ghosts are here always, their breath on our hair, their touch down our spines, watching us as we huddle in our beds. It’s not just our imagination. Tonight is Halloween. Let’s touch the ghosts. Come on. Everybody. Blow out the candles. I dare you.”

Bob turned off his hurricane lamp. Slowly, the candles snuffed away. It was blacker with the sounds of hushed, anticipating breathing. The room seemed choked.

I can feel you, Megan thought, her arms folded about her. Stella.

Suddenly a cracking, thunderous sound!

“Is that you, Bob?” Dulcey giggled.

“How did you know?” Bob asked.

“Been on too many soundstages. Not bad. I’m going to put you into the act, dear man.”

Bob shimmered his cymbals.

“I know! Everyone, hold hands,” Dulcey commanded. “Let’s have a seance! Be very quiet. Be very welcoming. Hello. Hello. Is there a spirit in the house? Is there a spirit in the house?”

“Yes,” Bob croaked.

“Who are you, spirit?”

“The spirit of the drunken sailor!”

“What do you want, spirit?”

“A cold martini, shaken, not stirred.”

Laughter roared.

Dulcey quickly stood up, lit a candle.

“We’re going trick-o’-caroling, everyone,” she said. “Light all the candles!”

“Trick a what?”

“Trick-o’-caroling—you know, like Christmas caroling.”

“But there aren’t any Halloween songs,” Helen called out.

“We can sing camp songs,” Stephanie suggested.

“Stephanie!” Dulcey grabbed the girl and kissed her cheek, hugging her tightly.
“Right, then, off we go.”

“Oh, this is getting too hokey,” Regina whispered in Megan’s ear. “She can be too much. Don’t you think?”

Megan ignored Regina, walking away.

Gaily, Dulcey’s party went around the neighborhood, ringing doorbells and yelling, “Trick-o’-caroling!” As they sang, other groups joined them, until, a festive mob, they ended up on Platter’s Field, drinking apple cider and roasting hotdogs and marshmallows around a bonfire, giddy with joy. The power quietly flickered back on around four in the morning.

Dulcey always maintained Bob had planned the whole thing.

“You’re giving me much too much credit, Dulcey,” Bob would protest.

“Don’t play modest with me, mister. I have your number. Only, Bob, next time, don’t blow out the whole city. No point in overdoing things.”

They couldn’t stop giggling, bending over together in hysterics.

This was an excerpt from Anchored Leaves. If you enjoyed it, buy the book! The ebook version is free if you buy the paperback at Amazon.

23 Oct
2013

To Live It Again

Here, I share another excerpt from Anchored Leaves. In this parcel, Dulcey relives her past through her young, beloved protege.

 

Dulcey often talked about a children’s play she had once done called Tales of Scheherazade, a two-hour extravaganza she’d written based on A Thousand and One Nights. She’d play bits and pieces from the score, twenty-odd songs of delightful, haunting beauty, songs she was most proud of having written. People went home humming the music, remembering certain lines like forgotten yearnings recaptured. They insisted she do the play.

Dulcey hesitated—she wasn’t sure how she’d pulled it off the first time around. The basic text was written, the songs complete. All she’d have to do was consolidate her many versions, add enough lines for all the children. Penny could play the piano—but that would mean she’d have to create an arrangement, which was always so much work. Dulcey generally ad libbed the arrangements, using only a sketch of notes as a bible. For her, it had always been much more easier to create spontaneously than play what was already written.

No one took notice of Dulcey’s reservations. She’d done too good a job conjuring up the Tales. The play was growing chaotically around her and she didn’t understand. For the first time, she was afraid.

One of the play’s most enthusiastic supporters was Carol Lewiski. She was mesmerized by Dulcey’s descriptions of the original production and began immersing herself in the world of the ancient Persians. Sometimes she’d drive three, four hours to visit a museum or library, losing days inside books. She was especially affected by the religious art: the colors, the geometry, the grace and vibrancy that celebrated without mentioning—she couldn’t ever remember feeling so moved. It was more than looking at pretty pictures; she was filled with ideas, ideas she found couldn’t be expressed except with colors and shapes, in the sensuous flow of cloth. So much of her married life had been about Bob or the children, about being sensible and making a dollar stretch. She’d never known what a fulfilling career meant; she’d found a secretarial job with the school district to help support the family. If she had been extravagant, it had been for the children. Even her dreams had been for her children. And now she was so moved, being inside her own self, being able to express who she was without being bound in relation to anyone else. She felt confident in a way that seemed at odds with everything she’d ever thought she’d known about herself. For the first time in her life she wanted to travel, really discover the world and herself in it. All because of Dulcey’s beautiful play.

The premiere was three weeks away. Megan had arranged for the use of her school’s auditorium. Jim Abernathy had a friend of his print the programs in exchange for advertising. Only the costumes and props were left. In the Lewiskis’ garage, a band of volunteers spent the weekend sorting through donated materials.

“Oh, look at this!” Carol pulled out a large length of glossy yellow cotton, patterned with birds of paradise. She draped it over a shoulder to see if it was long enough for a full costume. “We can definitely use this. Maybe Aladdin’s robe. Or Scheherazade’s gown. I was thinking, Dulcey, if we had a bake sale we could probably raise three, four hundred dollars. Stephanie’s Girls Scout troop raised five hundred at their bake sale.”

“That’s a great idea. We can ask everyone to make something.” She knew Carol would take care of everything.

“That’s exactly what I was thinking. I just made some plain sugar cookies and they sold those for ten cents each. I’m sure Josie Abernathy would make her whoopie pies. Easily fifty cents. And Megan makes those heavenly almond meringues—I’ll start calling around.”

“You know, I have a pair of earrings just that color yellow. It’s the kind that hangs really long.” The flow of Dulcey’s fingers shaped the earrings down her neck. “It’ll be perfect. I think it’s somewhere in my closet. Penny, remind me to go look for those later.”

“Dulcey, you look tired,” Carol said, pressing her warm hand on Dulcey’s shoulder.

“I’m all right,” Dulcey said, smiling. “Just need a nice hot bath and an early night’s sleep.”

“Helen, why don’t you take Dulcey home,” Carol said.

“I think that’s a good idea,” Helen agreed. Dulcey didn’t protest.

The next day, Dulcey and Penny sat at the kitchen table trying to finalize the script. Penny was taking typing classes at school so she acted as Dulcey’s secretary. It was a good time to be working on the Tales, that quiet time in summer when everyone was away and boredom steeped in the heat. Maybe it was the heat. Maybe she was tired. She couldn’t concentrate, staring at the odd pieces of paper, the scribbled notes that seemed to float in and out of her consciousness. It’s just scribbles, she thought, scribbles. Somehow, when she imagined things, it was so much more. There was nothing here—just scribbled nonsense.

“All these little plays, these little songs I’ve written—they don’t mean anything to me,” she suddenly confided to Penny. “I haven’t done anything, not really. Haven’t accomplished a damn thing worthwhile. I’ve just thrown my life away. But it’s not too late. I’ve been working on something, something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. Look—I want you to see.”

She put her iced tea down and dug through a pile of papers until she found the manila folder she was looking for. Inside were three flimsy pieces of onionskin paper.

“I’m writing a book,” she said, almost whispering. “It’s the story of my family. My mother’s family. They go all the way back to Jamestown. Royalists to the bone; after the Revolutionary War they went straight up to Canada. I bet you didn’t know there were colonists loyal to England. They don’t teach that at school. It’s just like my family—to stick to the losing side. Anyway, sometime in the 1800s they came back down to America and somehow settled in California. I want to write about that—a big family epic about California. Now you mustn’t tell anyone. I don’t want anyone to know until it’s all finished. I haven’t gotten very far—I’m just doing the research now. I’ve written away for some documents—birth records and property deeds. You know, we can trace the family back to Alfred the Great. I just want to accomplish something for once in my life. I had so much talent—but I just took it all for granted. Like my MGM contract—I just wasted it. I never tried seriously at anything—and I had so much. I could just kick myself.”

She snapped the folder shut.

“Don’t tell anyone now. Promise. I’m only telling you because—Penny, I want you to promise me that if I die before it’s all finished, you’ll finish it for me. You carry on for me.”

Penny slowly nodded, too frightened not to promise.

“You promise?” Dulcey asked again, wanting to be sure Penny really understood. Penny nodded again, feeling dizzy. Dulcey scrutinized her face, then relaxed, judging the promise to be good and knowing. There was no one else except Penny.

“Also—there’s something else. Come to my room.”

Penny nervously followed. Dulcey motioned for her to sit on the bed. She took a large cardboard box from out of the closet and rested it between herself and Penny.

“Most of this ain’t worth a thing. Just things I’ve collected over the years.”

From the box came smaller boxes containing costume jewelry, old greeting cards, programs, trinkets. The last thing to come out of the box was a large velvet cloth that was tied like a sausage.

“This is the only thing I have left that’s worth anything now,” Dulcey said, carefully unrolling the sausage. Leaved in between the velvet were a dozen pieces of antique jewelry, the whole collection not worth more than a few thousand dollars.

“These are all family heirlooms. I want them to be passed on to my nieces. The garnet pieces should go to my niece Christine and this aquamarine set I want Elizabeth to have. They’re beautiful, aren’t they?” Dulcey picked up the aquamarine bracelet and held it against her wrist. The dangling jewels swayed, releasing a reverie bound in cycles of light. Dulcey surveyed her treasures.  She touched each piece and then patiently rerolled the bundle, being careful to lay each earring, bracelet, necklace flat against the velvet.

“I can’t believe it’s all I have left. How the mighty have fallen. There was a time when Ronny and I’d spend a couple hundred dollars at lunch and not even think twice. We had a magnificent home, entertained all the time. We never even thought about money. And then things happened so fast. Ronny retired and then the cancer—we didn’t think he’d even survive. Six months the doctors said. We had to trade the pension in for the operation. I used to teach music just for fun. God, it’s awful not having any money. I couldn’t even get a decent dress for Elizabeth’s wedding. Everyone thought I looked awful and I knew it. After the reception I was helping my sister to her room—she was really plastered—and she turned to me and said why did you even come? I know she was drunk, but, god, it was like she’d kicked me in the stomach.” They’d been so close—Dulcey had helped raise Christine and Elizabeth.

“I used to be very sophisticated, oh, so chic—Ronny was so proud of me. Now I’m just a buffoon. Where are those earrings I was telling Carol about? Here they are. What do you think? Just perfect, aren’t they? Here, you hold on to those. God, I haven’t looked through all this stuff in ages. Oh—you have to look at this!”

Dulcey gave Penny an old vinyl 78 single. The cover had swaying palm trees and the label read Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine! Sung by that new sensation Diane Beverley!

“Diane Beverley! That’s me! I made that when I was with MGM. Begin the Beguine! And, oh! Here’s my dress—the dress I used to perform in.”

Dulcey pulled away the fragile tissue paper. She carefully unfolded a black silk gown.

“I bet you can’t believe I was ever this small!” She held the dress to her chest and spread it across her hips. “There should be a pair of shoes—right at the bottom, Penny.”

Penny found matching black silk sandals in a plastic bag. She took them out of the plastic. The shoes were so delicate, silk fraying at the edges.

“There’s no way I’ll ever fit into those sandals again. I bet they’d fit you though. Try them on.”

Penny took off her tennis shoes and slowly fitted the sandals to her feet. She stood up, suddenly three inches taller, her body, the world, unbalanced.

Dulcey looked at the dress again, examining its details without seeing them. With sorrow she said, “Here. Try it on.”

Penny began to undress.

“Careful,” Dulcey warned. “Watch the shoes.”

Guiding Penny, Dulcey gently pulled the dress up around her, zipping it carefully up the back. She straightened the skirt, brushing the wrinkles and smoothing the fabric over Penny’s hips. The gown fell just an inch above the heels, Penny’s toes peeking out.

“Turn around. My god. I can’t believe it. It really is me. Only I was a bit more busty than you. But there are tricks to take care of that.” Dulcey stuffed tissue into the bosom of the dress. “What would we women do without tissue? There—you look a picture. Just some work on your hair and you’ll be ready for Hollywood. Oh, Mr. Mayer—” She fingered Penny’s hair, brushing the thick curtain away from her face.

“Let’s do something with your hair,” she said, pulling Penny into the bathroom. With large scissors, Dulcey began ruthlessly cutting away at Penny’s waist-length hair. Stunned, Penny sat watching as leaves of her hair fell all around her. Dulcey liked the way Penny’s new hair bounced around her shoulders. She decided to put it up in hot curlers for that Hollywood glamour look. Penny needed makeup, too. Lots of it.

“Close your eyes for some pancake,” she said, buffing Penny’s face with cream foundation. “I wish I still had some false eyelashes. There was a time when I never left home without them. But this will do, this will do. I think we’re finally ready.” Dulcey threw off the towel that had been protecting the gown and had Penny stand up for inspection. “My god—you look like a young Ava Gardner. Take a look.”

Penny didn’t understand what she was seeing in the mirror, the creamy paleness of her décolletage against the silky blackness of the dress, her narrowed waist, the blossoming of her hips. Her face was like a mask of someone she could almost recognize.

“What do you think? The dress is a bit loose, but you’ll grow into it. ‘Begin the Beguine’.” Dulcey seemed sad, wistful. And then, with a roaring voice, she cried, “Come on!”

She grabbed her record and marched Penny into the front sitting room where the stereo was. Dulcey turned the record player on. For a moment there was nothing but static, the needle skipping over scratches. Then the orchestra began, followed by the voice, clear and rich, and very young.

Dulcey stood behind Penny. She began guiding Penny’s arms, whispering movements through her body. Memory and experience sang through every fiber of their being. The song had become her life.

 

15 Oct
2013

Dinner, A Twitter Story

Dinner, As Told On Twitter

Tweet #1:

She sometimes ate her dinner standing up, in front of her living room window.

Tweet #2:

Across the street, in a window, a man was doing the same. The next evening too. And the next.

Tweet #3:

Soon tables appeared underneath the facing windows.

Tweet #4:

Sitting, they enjoyed the other’s company, the evening rosy with candlelight and wine.

Tweet #5:

Then one Saturday morning, through the window, she saw boxes and movers.

Tweet #6:

The man was gone & the table was gone & dinner was once again that alone time between light and dark.

12 Oct
2013

Breaking Prose

In my last post I talked about how I wrote All Married Together and “miranda” at the same time, almost simultaneously. Wildly different stories and styles. And yet…

…if I think about it, both are reflections of my desire to break apart the barrier between prose and poetry. I think that’s been the impetus to my writing from the very beginning. Why the writing is minimal. I want to take the language near the breaking point, which the best poetry often does. There, at that point of merging, language becomes freer, interpretations personal and primal, the reading a knowledge beyond language.

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Anchored Leaves




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