Saturday, September 3, 2011

"these quiet times" fiction

i'm not a fiction writer. hell, i'm barely a writer at all unless you include these scant essays and a desire to have a job where you can work in day old clothes and not shave.  but like all young, hopeful wannabes, i one day wanted to write novels.  why not just write one, you say?  well, as i've mentioned before, writing is hard.  it sounds great, sit around all day and make up shit or whine about your everyday life.  and don't even get me started on how tough it must be to be a newspaper or magazine journalist.

to write, to really make something worth reading, you have to work at it. it takes discipline to figure out how to structure a story.  in the case of nonfiction, you must figure out how to express your ideas and thoughts into a cohesive structure. even now i've had to sit here for 20 minutes or so and think out how best to present my intro. and redundancy bothers me.  for instance, should i have just written: "...and think out how best to present"? or "...and think out how to introduce this piece"? little things like that bug the shit out of me.  i like brevity in writing, spare use of language and shorter sentences while reading (read anything by the late robert b. parker to see some great examples of this), but i don't really write that way.  i tend to write how i talk, imitating my speech pattern to an alarming degree that doesn't always play out well on the page.

no matter, this piece isn't really about linguistic style or discourse analysis, or any of those lofty ideals and fancy labels i learned in grad school.  no, this is about fiction, an idea of a short story that's been banging around in my head for a while.  i don't really have it fleshed out, just a scene in my head thtat needs some structure.  and i must confess we have my good friend lynn sitz howerton to blame for me attempting this at all.  on a recent visit, she reminded me of how she used to badger me when i was younger to write a novel, that i had indeed promised i would write one.

attempts at longer works have been made before. and after a few months, abandoned.  novels are long, incredibly arduous and frequently you spend years writing them.  so i've decided to try baby steps.  this is no slight on the short story; indeed, i would say a poem or song can be just as difficult or more so to write as writing a novel.  but seeing as how i spend a lot of my time doing nothing but sitting and i really enjoy that, i thought i should see what i can do with a shorter window of time.  so remember, while we may have me to blame if it sucks, we really have ms. howerton to blame for getting us in this god awful mess in the first place.


these quiet times

"just sit here with me a minute, martha.  the kids aren't gonna fret if dinner is a few minutes late."

the deck was situated on the east side of the house on a low hill.  they were sitting on the bench he had built when they bought the house.  weathered and beaten by the salt air and the harsh maine winters, it nevertheless endured.

the kids -- june, homer and jeff -- aren't really kids.  jeff, the youngest of the bunch, is 52 years old. 

"i don't know why you don't just let homer cook the meal anyway.  he loves to cook."

martha looked at him and said, "he cooks all the time, that's what he does for a living.  i always cook at thanksgiving and i'm not gonna stop now."

it was an argument they had every year.  not really an argument, as they both knew what the other was going to say -- so much so that the house was often filled with silence.  they had been married for almost 60 years, so it was hard for them to surprise each other.  there was lots to be done, potatoes boiled and mashed, the green beans washed and cooked, rolls to be baked.  still, she sat next to him and watched the boats coming in and out of the small harbor.  he put her hand in his and let out a low sigh.

"are you okay, bill?"

"i'm fine, just a little tired is all.  let's just sit here a while longer then i'll come in and help you with supper."  bill hadn't touched a pot or pan in 30 years, but she knew to let that go.  he asked, "is rachel coming?"

rachel is jeff's oldest daughter and bill's favorite grandchild, though he would never admit that. of the 6 grandkids, rachel -- jeff's only child -- was the only one to follow in her grandfather's footsteps and become a poet.  she'd even got a book published that she'd dedicated to her grandfather, which tickled him to no end.  she had recently been made an assistant professor at his old alma mater, dartmouth.

"she called yesterday, remember? she'll be here."

"oh yeah, i forgot." 

their house stood on a high hill overlooking the cove, a house they bought after his first book was published to good reviews.  not much money, but enough for a down payment on a place in maine, their favorite getaway from the bustle of boston.  one day they dreamed of settling down there, and after 15 years of teaching at harvard and more books, and some money their own parents willed them, they resettled permanently to their vacation home.

"i should go get the potatoes boiling, bill.  you stay out here and enjoy the air."

she started to get up, but he said, "just a minute more, martha.  sit out here with me a little longer before the kids get here."  he squeezed her hand gently.  she sat back down and they watched the boats some more.

"is the boat ready?" martha asked.  it was a tradition to take a twilight sail after thanksgiving supper.  they would round stonington and head out to the little unnamed islands and back, drink a bottle of wine and talk.  it was her favorite part of the day, letting the kids do the sailing these days, while she and bill sat up front and drank wine and watched the sunset.  after thanksgiving, the boat would go into dry dock for the long winter months until homer or june would come and help get it ready again for the summer months. growing up, all the kids practically lived on the water.  after the kids left home, bill and martha still continued to sail several times a week.  their twilight years/twilight sails as he liked to call them.

bill nodded. "yeah, she's ready. i checked all the gear out this morning."

he rarely slept anymore.  most mornings he would toss and turn until finally getting out of bed and making coffee around 5, taking his plethora of pills to keep his body in check.  his joints and muscles hurt and would take most of the morning to stop aching.  he would pour a cup of coffee and sit at his desk overlooking the harbor and work on a poem and look through his emails.  he still kept in contact with some of his colleagues, the ones that were alive anyway.  seemed to him there were fewer and fewer each year.

after the meds kicked in enough to allow him to walk, he would get up, put on a coat and walk out to the garage where he would go through the driftwood he'd collected.  20 years ago he started carving birds and other animals out of the driftwood he found washed up on the shore.  he made ducks, terns, chickadees, cardinals, whatever the wood looked like.  he'd take a section of driftwood and say "looks like a cardinal is in there" and he'd commence to shaping the wood until it indeed looked like a cardinal.  they were not ornately turned, rather they looked more like suggestions of birds, foxes, bears, etc.  but they had a natural beauty to them, and he was as well known around coastal maine for being a carver as he was a poet.

but his hands swelled and ached so much most days, and he could only stand for short periods of time.  so he limited his carving to just an hour these days.  a few years ago, he had sliced a big gash in his hand, so bad that he couldn't use it for two weeks.  martha frequently rubbed the lines of the scar when she held his hand.  he liked to feel her soft hands tracing the edges of it with her fingers; it made him somehow feel more alive.  there's a poem in that, he thought, and he hoped he had time enough left in his life to write it.  but for now it just sat there in his mind, percolating like so much coffee. 

most mornings he would come in and find martha at her crossword puzzles, drinking coffee and waiting for him to come in before starting breakfast.  a retired librarian, she loved words, probably even more so than her poet husband.  but she had no desire to write, only to read and do her crossword puzzles. she had book after book of completed ones that she kept next to the cookbooks and recipe boxes in the kitchen bookshelf.  when they had remodeled the house over 30 years ago, they both agreed that bookshelves in every room was mandatory.  now, three decades later, the shelves were overflowing and almost every flat surface had a stack of books on it.

martha said: "i wish sophie were coming home for thanksgiving."

bill held her hand tighter. "me too, martha, me too.  but i bet she would be."

dead over 50 years now, sophie was the subject of bill's first published book of poems.  the loss of her was a tragedy they never got over.  the other kids, still young themselves at the time, never really understood what pain their parents went through. to them it is a small blip on their radars, an event that, while horrible, was nonetheless something they could not relate to.

they had picked out the name sophia --sophie -- because of the sound of it.  sophie.  they had planned to stop at three children, but when they found out martha was pregnant, they both admitted they secretly wanted another child.  they did as all parents do, dreamed about what she would look like, who she would become.  they had hoped for a little girl, and they joked about it balancing out the gender ratio in the househould.  at night he would hold martha, feeling the weight of her belly in his hands.  bill would kiss her belly and feel sophie kick and he would look up at martha and they would smile.  the doctors couldn't explain why she died after only two days.  one moment she was there, the next... gone.

they grieved, and bill being a writer by trade and by heart, wrote about sophie, about the life she would never have.  bill's book had outlined a life full of joy, of learning to talk, of catching frogs, playing with dolls, sailing, going to college; of her marriage and grandchildren they would never get to see because she never got the chance to live except in their minds and through his poems.  they had built a life for her in their heads and he poured those onto the page and tried to turn tragedy into catharsis.

they managed to make a good life for their children and to not let the sorrow in their hearts spill over.  their other children grew up, got jobs, got married and they carried on and lived a happy life with their three children, their books and their friends...

but in these quiet times on the hill, they let their hearts break and the tears flow.  no one knew of, or could see these moments, but after five decades, the tears still flowed and their bodies sagged, looking even older than their almost 80 years. they would hold each other and, rarely speaking of it, they would feel the pain all over again.

"you wanna go in and start supper?" bill asked, rising to his feet.  she didn't answer right away; she just stared out at the water.

"no, let's just sit here a few more minutes, okay?" she said, drying her eyes.

bill looked at her, stroked her hair and said: "of course, martha".  he sat back down, took her hand and they watched the boats move in and out of the harbor, the water coruscating in the late november sun.


  1. More fiction ,please. Good stuff here.

  2. thx, justin. fiction is hard for me. lots of ideas, but they sound a lot better in my head than they do on paper. i have been missing your writings, i'm glad you're back.