Thursday, May 27, 2010

Fitting in

After Kate pulled out of her driveway she unbuttoned her jeans so they wouldn’t keep digging into her belly as she made the drive across town. Standing up she could get away with these pants, unfortunately sitting down was another story. They were the only pair left that she could get into anymore, and they were getting tighter by the day. Everything felt tight, her clothes, her jewelry, even her skin. When she caught a glimpse of herself in the rearview mirror she could see that her face looked swollen and almost puffy. She wanted to turn the car around and go home, to strip off what she was wearing and climb back into her baggy sweatpants and tee shirt. But there was no choice, they were out of even the minimal basics like milk and bread; she needed to go to the market. She pulled into the parking lot of the brightly lit A&P and discreetly re-buttoned her pants before getting out of the car and walking quickly into the supermarket, grabbing a cart by the door.

Every time she reached for something or bent down to get an item off the shelf, she felt her jeans dig in or her shirt lift up revealing more of her stomach than she wanted. She looked around to make sure she was alone and tried to readjust her clothes, pull up her jeans over the roll of fat across her middle, untwist her blouse, tugging the material trying to stretch it over her bulging body. With each aisle she felt bigger and bigger. The uncomfortable feeling of not fitting into her clothes, not fitting into her own body, not to mention her life, intensified with each step.

Because it was her life that was really the thing that didn’t fit anymore and she knew it, the truth was unavoidable when she was forced to face it. She didn’t belong here, didn’t belong in this body or this supermarket. She wasn’t supposed to end up like this.

As she unloaded her cart onto the conveyor belt she had to fight back the tears. God no, don’t let me lose it here in front of all these people. A panic welled up in her like a rising tidal wave and it was all she could do to swipe her debit card and bag her stuff, rushing to get out of there before the torrent overcame her. She kept her head down and tightly gripped the handle of the cart as she briskly pushed it across the parking lot. One by one she practically tossed the grocery bags into the backseat, not caring what was in them. She barely reached the safety of the driver’s seat before the tears would wait no longer and came pouring down her cheeks. As she drove out of the A&P parking lot crying her eyes out, she again unbuttoned her jeans and this time unzipped them too, feeling the need for total relief from the confines of pants that no longer fit her any better than her pathetic day to day existence.

When she was safely at home in her baggy clothes again with the food put away, she sat at the kitchen table and tried to calm down. She tried to sink back into that numbness that she could always manage to find once she was alone and away from the rest of the world. Kate ran her hands across the battered old pine table, as if trying to ground herself with each stroke, fingering each familiar scratch and furrow that was worn smooth with years of use. She’d once thought growing older would be like that. All the rough spots, all the scrapes and hollows of experience or loss would fill in, growing softer and smoother as the years went on. But that’s not what happened. For every deep groove that was worn flat some new mark was made, gouged fresh, jagged and rough. Life didn’t get easier, it was even harder than she’d ever imagined.

She ran her hands over her own body now, feeling the rolls of fat undulate like rippling waves. Her chin, once slightly pointed and a little bony, was now round and full, bulging above her sagging neck. Where did it go? Where did her body go, her life, her future?

Kate knew it wasn’t too late, but it was later than it should be. Yes, she could change things, almost everything in fact, for the better. But it would never be as good as it once was, and more importantly, it wouldn’t ever be as good as it should have been if she hadn’t let herself go in the first place. That was what got to her the most, if only she’d taken care of herself all along and never gotten fat to begin with, she might have aged gracefully. She definitely would have, she was sure of it.

Instead she gave up. She got scared and intimidated by the simple things in life that everyone else managed to handle – college, marriage, motherhood, career. She failed at all of it and now it was becomming obvious she was drowning her shame with food, smothering herself into nothingness. No, it was worse, she didn't fail, she didn’t even try to succeed to begin with. Either way, the end result was the same. She had no education, no career, no marriage anymore, one dead child and another that was as foreign to her as if she were a creature from another planet.

Enough. She was going too far, thinking too much. Kate stood up and walked over to the counter where there was one grocery bag left unpacked. She carried it upstairs and headed to her bedroom. As she passed by Nola’s room she could see the sliver of light from beneath her closed door. “I’m home – there’s bread and cold cuts downstairs if you want to make yourself a sandwich.” She heard a barely audible “okay” and with relief continued on down the dark hall. She was glad Nola didn't want to talk. Not tonight. She climbed into her unmade bed and reached for the remote. Mindless sitcoms and a package of cookies. One more night wouldn’t make a difference.

Tomorrow she would do better. Tomorrow she would wake up early and make breakfast for her and Nola. Something healthy, something they could sit and eat together at the old pine table, scratches and all.

Friday, May 21, 2010


Nola sat on the bottom step of her front porch and felt the cold granite begin to send its creeping chill throughout her little body. Dried, brown autumn leaves scraped the sidewalk in front of her as they skipped along in the rising breeze. Twigs and branches were scattered across the lawn from last night’s storm and Nola decided to pick some of them up while she waited for her father. She gathered as many as she could and carried them down to the small grove of white pines at the edge of the woods behind her house.

Beneath the sheltering branches of the tall straight pines Nola had created her own version of a bird’s nest in the crunchy carpet of dried pine needles that blanketed the ground. She’d carefully scooped and swept the mounds of needles into the outline of a circle large enough for her to sit in, adding twigs and pinecones to build the sides up over a foot high. She liked to imagine she was an exotic bird living high in the tree tops. Nola took the sticks she’d collected from the front yard and added them to the growing rim of her nest. Then she restacked some of the twigs that were knocked down during the previous night’s storm. When Nola was finished she stretched her arms out wide and slowly moved them up and down, flapping gracefully as she ran around to the front of the house, imagining that she was gliding through the cloudy sky as she zigzagged her way back to the steps. Nola sat once again on the granite slab. Her father still had not come out.

While she continued to wait, Nola noticed there was now something on the sidewalk that wasn’t there before. It looked like a ball of dried grass but when she got closer and gingerly picked it up she could see it was a small, perfectly formed bird’s nest -- a real one! Nola shivered with a combination of cold and excitement as she examined the delicate treasure, cupped carefully in her hands to secure it against the wind that was starting to kick up. Even though it looked fragile, as Nola scrutinized it she could tell that it was stronger than it seemed. This was smaller than she’d imagined a bird’s nest to be, it was hard to imagine any bird she’d ever seen actually using it, let alone sharing it with a brood of babies. Nola wished Grandee was here today, she would know what kind of bird built the nest. Grandee always knew everything. But her grandmother wouldn’t be here for several days yet. Nola needed to find a place to keep the nest safe until then. She wanted to take it to her room, but she couldn’t go back into the house now.

Instead Nola went around to the back porch and carefully reached her hand through the white painted lattice work running along the bottom and placed the nest gently underneath the weathered floorboards, tucked in a clump of leaves near one of the support posts. This was her special hiding spot, the place she kept things that didn't belong in the house, things her mother would say were dirty like pretty rocks or bits of broken pottery and twisted rusty nails that she found near where the old barn once stood.

“Nola Grace, where are you?” Nola jumped a little. She’d strayed from her waiting spot and now hearing the terseness of her father’s voice she knew he was not happy. “I’m sorry Daddy, I’m coming.” Nola called out as she ran towards where her father’s car was parked in the driveway. But he was already coming around the side of the house looking for her and she almost ran right into him. He grabbed her arm and walked a little too fast for her to keep up, partially dragging her along as he muttered under his breath, “How many times do I have to tell you, huh? If I say wait for me on the front steps then you sit your butt down there and don’t move till I come out. Jesus Christ, you’re gonna make me late, gotta look all over the place for you. If you’d just do what you were told once, just once…” and his voice trailed off as they reached the car and he waited impatiently for her to climb in. Nola was trying to get in quickly while not getting her dirty feet on the seats at the same time, but sure enough when she looked beside her she could see little pieces of leaves and pine needles all over the back seat. Thankfully her father didn’t notice and had already closed her door to go around the front of the car and get in. Once they were on their way Nola quietly reached over and picked up all the little bits and pieces she could, shoving a crispy fistful into her coat pocket before they reached the end of their street.

When they arrived at her school the long circular drive was empty. Usually cars were lined up along the entire length and even into the street beyond while parents waited to take their turn, one by one dropping off children under the watchful eyes of the waiting teachers. But no one was here now, not a single car. That meant that she was late, very late. Her father got out and opened her door, then got right back into the car.

“Daddy, I think your supposed to walk me in tell them why I’m late,” Nola said as she stood by the open car door, leaning into the back seat a little so he could hear her.

“Can’t I just write you a note or something?”

“Um, I don’t know, I guess so.”

Nola’s father rolled down his window. “Shut your door and give me a minute.” He took his black notebook out from the flap pocket of his coat and began to scribble quickly. Then he tore the page out and handed it to Nola, “Here, they can call me if they don’t like it. Hey, don’t go around the front of the car,” he snapped as she started to walk away, “always go around the back of a car, Nola, never around the front. Someone’s liable to run you over if they aren’t looking.” His words seemed to hang in the air for a minute before the realization of what he’d said caught up to him. Like Ethan, Nola thought, the person that ran over Ethan hadn’t seen see him. And then for the first time that day their eyes met. Nola thought her father looked sad and she wanted to give him a kiss goodbye. But he quickly looked away and before Nola could move he rolled up the window and drove off.

Nola stood there alone in the parking lot. The wind wrapped tangled strands of hair across her face as she looked at the low brick building and wondered if anyone from inside could see her. But the single row of windows revealed nothing, only a dimmed reflection of surrounding trees and clouds, as if the building were really floating in the sky.

She closed her eyes tight and thought, maybe the school was empty? Maybe today was actually Saturday? That had happened once, her mother had gotten her up and fed her breakfast, drove her here only to find an empty parking lot, just like today. But she’d been on time that day, even a little early, and her mother quickly realized her error. They’d laughed and gone out for pancakes. But Nola knew there was no mistake today. Her father would never make that kind of blunder.

As she walked up the sidewalk to the red steel doors that led down the long hall to her kindergarten classroom, Nola slowly picked out all the pine needles from her pocket and rubbed them between her fingers before letting them fall, pulverizing each little piece as she walked along. She thought about her nests, both the real one and the pretend one, and hoped that they would withstand the whipping winds that now blew the faint crumbled powder from her hands before it could leave a trail on the dark macadam, easily whisking away any trace of her late arrival.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Loose threads

Sometimes when you find a loose thread you can pull it and it snaps off clean. Other times you tug at it, hoping the thread will break, but instead it just keeps unraveling the stitches and the more you pull the more the edge of the fabric comes undone.

From the moment she overheard her father claim that Ethan’s death was due to her mother’s negligence and not just some random, unthinkable accident, everything started to change for Nola. She began to revisit each memory one by one, retell each family story in her head and tug at all the loose threads trying to catch any unraveled fragments of truth she might have missed before.

It started with something as mundane, as seemingly innocent as a ragged old teddy bear tucked away on a shelf. “Bear-Bear”, as he had been known since Nola could remember being alive, was a teddy bear she had since birth, originally a gift from Grandee. Only he barely resembled a child’s stuffed animal anymore, let alone something specifically bear-like. He was little more than a stitched together rag with the remnants of two eyes and a nose. Nearly all his fur was gone, as were his ears, he had a stub where one of his arms had been and like Frankenstein’s monster he was held together by a random pattern of zigzag stitches. Her mother, Kate, used to tell everyone he’d been loved to death like some Velveteen Rabbit. Embarrassed by his shoddy appearance she would repeatedly tell anyone who noticed him that Nola took him everywhere, that he was her favorite toy, that he’d been peed on, vomited on, left in parks on swings and in the yard during snow storms. “Poor Bear-Bear,” her mother would say with inflated sympathy.

Bear-Bear had a special place in Nola’s room to this day, on that high shelf, tucked enough behind her books that prying eyes wouldn’t notice and spare him ridicule, yet a bit of his face peeked out so that she could see him, she knew he was there, like a familiar guardian.

But now as Nola looked at the disheveled remains of her Teddy bear she saw him through different eyes. This was her very favorite toy, her most beloved. Despite what her mother said Nola knew she never left him behind anywhere, couldn’t remember a single time that Bear-Bear wasn’t accounted for. For some reason Nola had just let her mother continue to say those things and in silent compliance she went along with the stories.

Nola’s heart had been broken when Bear-Bear nearly met his demise, and even now she could still feel the pain, the agony as she remembered that horrible day. She had been brought home from nursery school by her grandmother and gone straight to the playroom after changing her clothes. When she opened the door Nola was nearly trampled as her dog Sheba came running out, clearly glad to be let lose from her confinement. Her mother, Kate, had put “that damn dog” in there and left her there all day long; a bored dog was a destructive one, especially a chewer like Sheba. There was shit and piss all over her doll blankets. Fluff and padding from various stuffed creatures, now ravaged, lay all over the floor with body parts of vinyl dolls and scraps of fur strewn from one end of the room to the other. The carnage was shocking, not a single toy was left intact, every object that Nola held dear was utterly destroyed. Nola tried to scream but no sound came out at first. And then she saw Bear-Bear, or what was left of him. He was decapitated and missing limbs, ripped apart like some horror movie victim. Finally her scream found its sound.

Her mother came running and yelled at the dog while trying to clean up the mess, telling Nola to stop crying, it would be alright, they would get her new toys. Only Nola didn’t want new toys, she wanted her own, she wanted her babies and her animal friends and most of all, more than anything else she wanted her Bear-Bear. She needed to rub his fur between her fingers and suck her thumb, she needed to feel him in the crook of her arm as she slept. He was her best friend and now he lay in rags and ruin.

Grandee came and tried to sew him back together, “good as new”, but of course he wasn’t. Still, Nola had been comforted some by her grandmother’s soothing voice as she sewed what bits and pieces she could find back together, creating a new version of Nola’s beloved. He still had the bit of fur on his arm where she liked to rub it, still lay in the crook of her elbow as she slept. Nola was devoted to him for several more years after that, but something had been lost, something had been taken from her forever, as damaged beyond repair as the bear had been. And now today it was as if the pain was fresh, as if the last bit of her innocence had been trashed along with her toys, ripped to shreds by the hungry mouth of her father’s accusation.

Nola always knew it was her mother that was responsible for locking a chewing dog in the playroom, in the room where Nola’s precious friends were, the room she played and sang and chatted happily to objects that listened to her in a way no one else did. Kate hadn’t given a second thought to what might happen. Instead she made up stories of favorite bears being loved to death rather than tell the truth…that nothing can be loved to death, only carelessly ignored with predictable results.

(rework in progress from this previous post)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

An excerpt

Nola enjoyed studying the local history of her town, but it always made her sad, too. Looking at the old sepia toned photographs at the library she could easily recognize some places, like the downtown storefronts or the municipal hall; even with the horses and buggies parked along Main Street instead of cars these buildings were little changed and still quite familiar. But other images were completely unidentifiable; they looked foreign as if they weren’t taken in this part of the country let alone her own hometown. Even when the town historian painstakingly tried to describe the locations using present day landmarks these sites had obviously changed so drastically that there was no longer any evidence of their existence beyond the delicate, worn photos. Nola didn’t like to think of things disappearing, of places or people being forgotten. She felt it her duty to listen intently and memorize all the images and stories she could.

After looking at the pictures the town historian explained to Nola and her class that Darlington was one of many suburbs around New York City that grew out of a once predominantly agricultural community. Beyond the downtown area it was hard to imagine the rest of town as it was, rolling fields of fertile farmland spread as far as the eye could see. There were still vague remnants of a few original farms, but thanks to the proximity of Darlington to the city and the advent of modern car travel the town was a popular upscale commuting suburb now. The many farms had dwindled down to only a handful of measly acres still under cultivation with a roadside stand here and there at best, the remaining land belonged to expensive homes built closer together and no longer capable of supplying any significant amount of food for its population. Most food came in trucks from far away, not from neighboring fields.

Throughout the still quaint present day neighborhoods there were scattered bits of woodland left as buffers between the larger homes, replete with mature trees and wild vines. What most residents failed to realize is that these patches of woods were actually once neatly cleared agricultural fields, what seemed like substantial oaks, hemlocks and sycamores were just overgrown within the course of less than a century, the forest gently reclaiming what the plow had abandoned only a couple generations ago. Sometimes distant echoes of the past were revealed when winter stripped the woods bare, perhaps the hidden outline of a fieldstone foundation or even some weathered old barn timbers collapsed and lying about, crumbling and rotting into the forest floor. It amazed Nola how quickly nature could change things, how fast it broke things down if given half the chance.

Nola’s own home was a quaint old farmhouse preserved from that bygone era, originally part of one of the oldest farms in Darlington, owned by members of the Darlington family themselves. There were several pictures of her house at the library but only one photograph showed the family who lived there, all lined up against the front porch standing stiffly and not smiling. The littlest boy in the picture, Ramsey Darlington, eventually became the town founder and pictures of him as an adult at various other spots around town were plentiful. He and his numerous siblings grew up to build many of the finer homes in the area and it was his ancestors that first settled in the region when it was practically wilderness.

As part of a working dairy farm the house Nola lived in was simple and sturdy, gracefully added on to and updated as the farm prospered. It once had acres and acres of land around it, of course, all cleared and nearly flat, good for planting and grazing. Today the land surrounding her house was barely half an acre. Much of the original parcel was sold off lot by lot during the housing boom of the fifties and the rest was eventually donated by the Darlington family to nearby Mahwah Mountain College for its expansion in the sixties.

But safely landlocked behind Nola’s home was a 10-acre tract of forest, once one of those flat, cleared fields where maybe cows had grazed or corn stalks grew, now densely wooded. Along the perimeter of the former field were the remarkably intact vestiges of a low, random stone wall, no doubt built by that long gone Darlington family. Today the wall still acted as a divider of sorts; along one length of it the woods were separated from the houses of the bordering street and on the other side it outlined the edge of the tree line before it fell away into the vast rolling lawns of the college. Across the third side, the farthest stretch of wall from Nola's yard, it created a property line for another old Darlington farmhouse, smaller than Nola's, but of the same period.

Nola liked to think about the farmer that once lived in her house, and especially of his wife and children. For some reason she pictured it being the children’s task to pick up the rocks turned up by the plough and place them upon the ever-growing wall, artfully fitting each one in at random, stone by stone. Nola could envision that maybe even after the wall was done they could still identify which individual stones they’d each placed there, perhaps proudly boasting about which one of them had laid the largest one, heavier than his or her brothers and sisters were able to lift. Nola always imagined there were lots of kids to do this wall building chore; all those old time farmers had big families. Grandee had told her it was necessary to have numerous children in those days because there was a lot of hard physical work to do, and sadly sometimes the children didn’t all survive so families needed to have as many as they could to ensure there’d be enough kids to work the farm and carry on. Grandee said times were different back then, harder for children and adult alike. It didn’t seem that different to Nola. Not really.

Still, it must have been a daunting task to lay a rock wall like that if you thought about it, but Nola guessed they didn’t give it much thought, that Darlington farmer and his family with all those many kids. They probably just took it in stride and did what needed to be done. That’s what it seemed like all people from the past did. Whenever her grandmother told her stories from her own childhood it sounded like people from the forgone generations just quietly accepted their lot in life better than people did today. At least that’s what Grandee always implied, anyway.

Nola loved her house and its history, and she loved her street and the surrounding neighborhood, but perhaps her favorite place lay in those verdant little woods behind her home. Safely contained within the confines of that old stone wall at the center of the woodland was a place called the Sycamore Cave by all the local children, as they’d called it since before Nola was born, though it wasn’t a cave by any means. It was actually a half downed tree, once an impressive sycamore, its trunk 20 feet in diameter and over 100 feet tall. But lightening had struck the giant, probably back when it stood alone in that cleared farm field, and the top half had been severed almost all the way through, but not quite. It snapped and fell in such a way that the upper portion stayed attached to the trunk, and, as if bending down from the waist, the top landed astride of it. The once lush, long limbed canopy was now upside down and created a fifty-foot cone of sorts, like a teepee of tangled limbs.

Through the years vines and brambles quickly grew over the outer branches so that the interior, starved of sunlight, was completely hidden from view and only a carpet of moist fallen leaves blanketed the ground within. Bare, dead limbs on the shaded interior of the “cave” seemed almost like a rickety framework, an unfinished cathedral created by some crazy architect and now abandoned. You could climb to the top, the once middle of the tree, if you were brave enough. Nola hadn’t attempted it since she was little, but then she never made it to the top. She was glad now she hadn’t. She decided not to try anymore, to leave it unclimbed.

Nola often wondered if Ethan had ever seen the tree, but her mother said she couldn’t remember. It was hard to believe that he hadn’t, Grandee said he loved to go for walks in the neighborhood with Granda. They’d be gone for hours and Granda would come back carrying Ethan, half asleep, they’d gone so far in their travels that it had worn him out. Nola always wished she could have known her grandfather even though everyone, even Grandee, said he was a mean man; a hard man is what she’d say. Nola’s own dad would shake his head and say his father was a tough old coot, “hard as nails and twice as sharp.” But all agreed he had a soft spot, a special place in his heart for his grandson Ethan. Nola knew her grandmother felt that way about her, that she held that kind of special place in Grandee’s heart. But it would have been nice to have a grandfather carry her home after an adventure.

Everywhere Nola went in her neighborhood, her little world, she wondered if Ethan had been there before her. As she got much older than he was when he died, she began to realize that his world had been rather small, he hadn’t had the chance to expand it the way she did. She was the lucky one, as her mother would often say, who got to do all the things he didn’t get a chance to. Sometimes when she’d whine about something she couldn’t have or wasn’t allowed to do her mother would give her a sad look and say, “You should feel lucky for all the things you do have, all the things you do get to do, your poor brother didn’t get his chance.” It always made Nola feel bad. Whenever she got to do something that she knew Ethan didn’t get the opportunity to experience she felt like she should try extra hard to enjoy it. That way maybe she could make up for what he missed. It was difficult, though, and she never felt like it was enough, never felt like she could enjoy things enough for the two of them.

When grown-ups mentioned Ethan to her mother or father, which they rarely did, but if they did, they would always say what a blessing Nola must be to them. Her parents smiled automatically and said the same thing every time, yes, thank God for Nola, they didn’t know what they would do without her. But Nola didn’t feel like a blessing. She wished she did, she wished she could be a comfort, a gentle reminder that Ethan had been here on earth.

Nola had already lived longer than her brother, she’d surpassed him, she was in a new territory beyond his knowing, his touch. Darlington had been Ethan’s home just like it was the home of the farmer’s children who lived in her house, yet those children would hardly recognize their home now, the woods in what was once their level, cleared field would seem as foreign to them as another planet. Would it be that way for Ethan, too, if he could come back to life? Someday the Sycamore Cave might finally fall down completely and rot into the earth, leaving no trace of the children who once climbed its lofty heights. The rock wall could crumble and the stones laid with care would disappear beneath the leafy mulch of the forest floor. That felt unforgivable to Nola. Time was something unsafe and not to be trusted.

The above is an expanded version of a post previously appearing on this blog as "The Sycamore Cave" . I wanted to create an excerpt to show people who ask about my work, to have something on hand that exemplifies the general tone of the novel without it being a dramatically crucial or pivotal scene -- just a basic sample, if you will.