Monday, May 11, 2009

meet Graham

(Not long ago I was exploring the character of Graham, writing some notes, jotting down descriptions & ideas, when towards the end of my writing he surprisingly began to speak in the first person. I got a glimpse of his internal dialog and a better view of his personality. I’m not sure about him being a first person character in the finished product, but I’m leaving it in this extremely rough draft for now because I think it gives insight into what makes him tick and I can use it for reference at the very least. Since it’s been a while that I’ve put something up, I thought I’d share it.)

People either loved or hated Graham Collins’ work. The fans he had were passionate about his books, collected them, read them again and again. There were book groups and fan clubs devoted to his novels. His classes at the college were always full. Freshmen got on a waiting list and hoped they would be able to squeeze in before they graduated.

There were still a few people, even critics, who didn’t realize the “Wicked Creek” series of Western novels were written by a college professor from New Jersey, a man who’d never been west of the Delaware Water Gap until after the first novel was published. Sometimes when they found out they would be angry, feel cheated or stupid. Like sour grapes, critics would often lambaste him and say they could tell his writing was inauthentic, that he was a phony hack. But others, even actual working cowboys, loved him all the more for it. They could tell he was an admirer who painted them in a glorious light and saw his work as a tribute to an ideal that was fading fast in contemporary times. He’d be invited to speak at touristy dude ranches and working cattle ranches alike. His fans crossed a wide demographic and even his harshest critics had to give him credit for his scrupulous research and attention to proper detail. This from a man who didn’t mount a horse until he was 35 years old.

There were women who liked his work too, something else the critics both praised and scoffed at. They often said he was actually a glorified romance novelist wrapped up in a saddle blanket. Most critics with any sort of feminist leanings trashed his female characters as being barely more than a revamped version of the old damsel in distress dressed up in cowboy boots and too much lipstick. But when they made a TV movie out of his second novel in the series, Trouble in Wicked Creek, it did so well in the ratings it was up for an Emmy Award. The movie didn’t win, but he was forever linked with the words, “Emmy nominated”.

None of this ever seemed to faze him outwardly. He took it in stride, never felt pressure to perform, to out do his previous work. That’s probably what kept him successful. That and he’d found his niche. The college asked him to teach additional classes, this time not on writing or fiction, but on Western Expansion, Manifest Destiny and the Gold Rush. Graham easily rose to that challenge.

Fans and colleagues alike all held the same opinion of Graham Collins. He was one of the nicest most genuine guys you’d ever want to meet. A gentleman in the real sense of that word, a gentle man, not larger than life, not self aggrandizing, but mild, friendly and sincere.

That was perhaps the most cutting wound of all to his wife and daughter. They suffered his wrath relentlessly; his exacting standards unmet could produce an anger so hot it seemed ready to erupt into violence at any second. That it never actually did was little consolation. The power his words, his unremitting anger had to wound them was worse than any blow could ever be. He either terrorized or ignored his daughter, belittled his wife and generally created a silent, seething storm of rage that swirled around his family practically at all times.

How could that angry being be reconciled with the persona the world saw? He was not a smooth man, not suave or adept at acting a part, pretending to be something he was not. So how was it that both these characters lived in one person? To Graham these were not incongruent personalities, not a dichotomy at all. His family was worthy of one type of interaction and the general public was deemed worthy of another. It was not devious, not contrived. This was just how he saw things. He saw nothing hypocritical about being kind to the outside world and brutal to his family. The outside world held no sway in his life, no power to disappoint him or hurt him. And he need not share how he felt about his wife and daughter with didn’t air your dirty laundry. The fact that his wife and daughter were a constant irritation at best and a colossal disappointment at least, was the cross he bore silently beyond the walls of his home.

If they would just tow the line, if they would just do what they were supposed to do and not screw up everything they touched then he wouldn’t have to get mad. It was their fault; they were the ones playing games. They’d act like they were being victimized when it was really him; he was the victim of their constant fuck ups. How hard was it to keep a house clean? How hard was it to pick up after yourself, to be polite and not intrusive? The outside world appreciated him; they admired him even. They didn’t think his simple requirements were so monumental or unreasonable. But his own wife, she couldn’t seem to meet even the most basic needs a husband might have. And she’d turned his daughter against him too. He saw how she looked at him when he disciplined Nola; she undermined him at every opportunity. And that just made Nola even more of a baby than she already was. Kate just babied that kid; let her get away with murder because she couldn’t be bothered. Kate can’t be bothered to do the simple stuff like keep the kid clean and teach her to behave. She couldn’t keep dogs from destroying the house or knives from ending up in toy boxes and she couldn’t keep track of a two and a half year old for one half hour…that’s all he was late, just 30 goddamn minutes. If she’d just watched him for 30 goddamn minutes…

Kate would never change. No matter how hard he tried to get thru to her she was unwilling to keep up her end of the bargain. Wasn’t that what marriage was? A bargain. A deal. You do this and I’ll do that. Graham had kept his end of the bargain. He’d provided for her and the kids and came home every Goddamn day. He wasn’t out gallivanting, wasn’t out with the boys. He was working at school or working at home. Even when he traveled, even then he never strayed. He was honorable and faithful and he’d made his bed so he lay in it without looking back.

Kate once had looked at him like he knew everything. She’d thought he was smart and funny, distinguished and rugged at the same time. She smiled, God, how she smiled at him all the time. Everything he said to her was witty and charming, she made him feel like the most virile guy in any room.

Now, now she could barely look him in the eye, barely even spoke to him let alone smile. She just looked away with that fake resigned expression, like she was some beleaguered wife that had to bare the brunt of his harsh treatment. Fuck that. Fuck that and fuck her. She was the one that changed, not him. She was the one that didn’t keep her end of the bargain.

Saturday, May 2, 2009


Kate kept going from room to room; trying to find a place to settle down and rest, to just stop thinking, escape from the terrible new knowledge. Cancer…the new word could not be formed by her own lips, it would hurt to speak it aloud. But even in staying silent there was no escape, one couldn’t leave cancer someplace and shut the door. There would never be escape or peace or numbness again; those days were over. She was trapped, inextricably tangled in this mutation that had taken over her breast, a stranglehold that was going to last forever.

It made her think how much of her life had been about escaping. She’d almost even managed to escape the anguish of her child's death…sometimes she could forget Ethan was really dead by dwelling only on the memories of him, mentally flipping through them like folders in a secret file cabinet, pulling out certain ones when needed.

But that was different now, too. Now she couldn’t even find Ethan, couldn’t find that sweet spot that she went to in her mind’s eye, that place of happy days and precious visions. Cancer seemed to change whatever she was trying to focus on. Somehow it magnified everything, brought more and more to the surface. It was as if every single bad thing that ever happened was suddenly feeding off the cancerous tumors and growing too, growing beyond the boundaries of her ability to stifle it. Nothing worked to keep the dark feelings at bay. There seemed no speck of happiness left to cling to, nothing, not one thing she could conjure up to look forward to or place her hopes upon. “What was the point?” was a phrase that kept coming back into her head over and over.

Of course Nola was the point. Nola needed to be the point here. For crying out loud, what kind of mother was she that her first, second and third thoughts weren’t for her daughter? She knew that’s how she was supposed to feel, what she was supposed to do. But it wasn’t how she felt and she couldn’t do it. There was something broken; a disconnect. Had it always been damaged, or did the cancer eat that away too?

Nola barely acknowledged her existence these days, and who could blame her? She’d hadn’t been there for this child, really. Memories haunted her…were they ever close? It was stunning the thoughts that kept rolling in her mind without stopping. No, wait, yes, they were, maybe, when she was little, younger. Or at least Kate had been going through the motions, was it good enough, did she love her enough?

“Good God, what have I done?” Her own voice echoed through the empty house.

The sudden clarity with which she saw things now was blinding, it was almost as painful as the knowledge that her life was probably over, that she might die soon. It was as if every thing became crystalline, pure thoughts just flew through her brain without cessation or censor, without bidding either. Nothing was within her control anymore. Not one thing. This was all beyond comprehension.

Wandering around and around the house she kept talking to herself just to hear a human sound, to know she was real, this was all happening. The awareness, realizations just kept coming in waves, mistakes she made, ways she could have been better, memories of times she should have been happy. “Why wasn’t I happy more, why didn’t I notice all the things that were there to be happy about?”

Now, now when she saw those very same things that should have made her happy before instead they made her mourn all the more, grieve for the life she had thrown away so far. She had wasted so much time…if only she’d known there was to be so little of it. If only she had known.

“Would I have had Nola?”

If she’d known that she might die would she have had another child after Ethan? She knew the answer. No. But yet she couldn’t bring herself to begrudge the life of her daughter, as disconnected as she felt she couldn’t let herself stay in that thought.

Instead she kept moving, kept doing, kept trying to find a place to land, a place to let go. Eventually she found herself in the bathroom opening the medicine cabinet. Plenty of painkillers. Just to sleep. Just two, maybe three.

The next morning as the sun shown brutally thru the lace curtains Kate wished she had remembered to draw the blinds, wished she could continue to sleep, go back into the depths where she had drifted…far past dreams and awareness of any kind. Sleep was now probably only going to be available to her artificially, she knew that, had suffered from insomnia enough to know that there was no way she could ever just lie down and sleep with the awful knowledge of cancer now looming over her, as if a monster from a childhood nightmare had come to life, no longer just lurking in the forgotten dust under the bed. But sleep was also her only refuge. The night before was a complete blank, she barely remembered falling into bed. There were no thoughts, no more flurry of memories and realizations. Just the empty relief of complete nothingness. She should call the doctor and get a regular prescription for sleeping pills. Surely they give that to people like her? Who has cancer and can sleep on their own?

But no doctors today. She knew there were phone calls, arrangements she needed to make, appointments to schedule, facts to learn, decisions to be made. The thought of it all was completely overwhelming. It was impossible.

“Where do I start?”

The sound of her voice alone in the house was no longer comforting. It was unfamiliar, as if it were someone else’s. It was. It belonged to someone with cancer. She didn’t know that person. She didn’t want to.

Tomorrow. Tomorrow she would face things. For today she wanted nothing more than to sleep again, just a little longer. Thankfully she had plenty painkillers left to last till she got something of her own. Graham was always getting prescriptions for his back and not taking them, he was too tough, said they clouded his mind. That’s exactly what she wanted, to cloud her mind. There were plenty to choose from. For today, she could just use what she had and sleep. She would bury her mind in a thousand clouds until there was nothing but softness to smother all thoughts of cancer.