A coffee cup on a kitchen counter makes quite a different melodywhen no quiet breathing from behind some wall works to fill the space between the snapping of my lighter and the static from the radio. Where do I set my plate when your elbows aren’t spread like wings so rude across the breakfast table? The last thing I remember, when your voice was still fresh in my head, I was cross-legged on a snow pile in a mall parking lot; pay no mind to the crazy woman with her head between her knees, melting the ice with her eyes. No one looked at me. I knew even though I never looked back.
Somehow I was back in our home – my home now – feet curled to one side like I should have been reading the latest romance novel with a cup of earl grey in one hand. Instead I curled fingers around a paisley printed box of tissues while distant family cooked dinner in our kitchen, not knowing where we kept the silverware. They roamed like tourists. When someone handed me a plate I abandoned my fork and wrote your name in strands of spaghetti.
“Eat,” a voice said. An uncle? A cousin, maybe. My chin rarely stopped kissing my chest. I moved in increments of someone twice my age and continued to trace your name in entrees and desserts. Eventually everyone held their plates above bent arms, an ethereal beauty about the living room in splashes of marinara red and apple pie tan calling for me to forge your signature. A hand on my shoulder begged get some rest but my artist’s mind was twisting through a snow storm.
Like a cinematic fast-forward I am having lunch years later but it was yesterday you died, and quietly I am ordering another glass of red, shaking your face from my fingertips.
It’s funny, this thing called life; hilarious actually, the way we rush in, sometimes unexpectedly, flesh and blood hitting the air in a sterile room or some cracked leather backseat. We live, we grow like weeds, we take breaths and comb our hair. We work and play and we listen to the tales of our elders, we learn of the darkness, we learn to fear it while we dig our claws deep into the light. We fear what we can’t see, that open-ended intersection between now and then. Now is all warmth and baked bread and laughter in the hallway; then is quiet and eternal reflection. Is it a better place, this then? Is there soft Jazz and the sounds of a summer’s night? When I go will my family find me? “Rage,” he said. And so we rage.
It can’t be so bad, this aftermath. When your insides grow dark and your spirit is tripping on the sidewalk cracks you welcome a vacation from the sirens and the reruns. No crackling television, no crowded subway, no hunger. Just comfort, just music, just love. We hope.
When death comes to visit it lays a hand on the shoulders of those closest to the lost one, sometimes with a message attached; “You too,” it whispers, and “soon”. It smells human surrender from the moment the heart breaks.
Just last year my Uncle Steve lost his daughter. Rachel. This past Saturday my Uncle/Godfather lost his battle with cancer. I remember a man full of life, brimming with heart and soul. My Uncle, my Godfather, our love; he is in a place away from the chaos.
No lie, it just took me about 3 tries to spell that title. Oy. After attending the “3.2 Celebration” for the new issue of Gigantic Sequins last night, my brain has gone into short-story mode. Some fantastic readers read their pieces that are being featured in the new issue, and that part of my brain started churning. (By the way, it’s a pretty sweet literary publication featuring amazing art and fiction – the Editor in Chief is a very nice girl, too – so I suggest checking it out!) I also submitted my story, “Sirens Underwater” to the magazine, so fingers crossed they enjoy it!
Anyway, I took a little novel break today to start a new, short piece. I promise I’m not steering too far away from the novel again! I think my brain just needed a break to get those juices flowing again, so I went a little off course to get the job done.
I literally started writing this about half an hour ago, but what do you think of the beginnings? Not sure why I have an obsession with funerals and dead bodies and how people feel about the two…but it’s something that really touches me and fascinates me in some way.
Have a fantastic weekend everyone!
It isn’t what you’d expect, the first time you see a dead person. All of those crime shows cannot steady you, cannot reassure you; you fail to smell how the air thickens through the smooth screen of a television. From the couch you might catch a glimpse of a limp hand with a gold bracelet dangling from the wrist, or a brief shot of dirt-covered sneakers, one on, one off, a white sock with a hole in the bottom revealing skin. No background, no personalization – a black bag and an old photograph, open then closed for your hour-long entertainment.
I’d been to funerals, each one the same as the last, just a different distant family member lying each time at the front of the church. They’re always cleaned up, clothes ironed and layered neatly, makeup overdone on a sunken face, brother, mother and sister quietly dabbing their eyes from the sidelines.
None of it is quite the same.
Mid-October, afternoon, my shift was over and the cool weather and high shining sun found me walking a different path home. The alternate route was a bittersweet canvas of broken, hilly sidewalks and rows of trees with thick branches that curtsied into the blacktop in the summer, when they were weighed down by the leaves; now they hung slightly higher over my head, the imperfect legs of a spider flailing helplessly, searching for ground.
“You can sit there, tense and worried, freezing the creative energies, or you can start writing something. It doesnt matter what. In five or ten minutes, the imagination will heat, the tightness will fade, and a certain spirit and rhythm will take over.” – Leonard Bernstein
A few days ago, bright and early, I set out to my local Starbucks for a morning chai and some writing. Yes, I sat myself down amongst the other hipsters with their laptops and cotton blouses while some sort of depressing folk music played softly from above and I opened up my tiny Netbook, ready to rock. Did I mention the turkey bacon-egg white-and cheese-on a whole wheat english muffin as well? Delicious.
Still slightly high off of my Honorable Mention I opened up a fresh document and expected the words to start flowing from my fingertips. I mean, duh, it should have been easy, right?
Of course not.
I tabbed back and forth between two separate paragraphs – containing two very separate ideas – for a while, growing more and more frustrated, sipping more and more frequently on my tea instead of typing furiously, until finally I was relieved to see the clock tell me it was time to go. As I packed up my things I felt guilty for the relief I felt.
While I am well aware that it is pointless to wait around until some type of inspiration presents itself – it seems this is not typically the case for us writers – it never gets easy, sitting down at the keyboard and starting something fresh. When I am at work, or the gym, or shopping, I constantly people watch, praying for something to stand out, something worth building a story around.
Maybe everything and everyone around me is just too boring. Yes, of course, that must be it.
My point here is that I – and others like me, who find writing to be more of a struggle than something therapeutic, at times – need no excuses, no distractions, just myself and the keyboard or pen or Sharpie or stick of eyeliner. Like Bernstein’s quote says, even if those first few minutes spew out nothing more than nonsense, eventually a rhythm will take over and things will fall into place, and the ideas will churn and a story of some kind will appear on the page. But writing takes dedication, it takes patience and passion. Even those athletes who have made it all the way to the Olympics have days when quitting sounds easier than pushing on. But the ones who are truly dedicated respond to those emotions by training just a little harder.
I am currently working on a short story I will be entering in yet another Glimmer Train contest, due by the end of the month. Fingers crossed. A solid block of time put aside for writing each day is in order. Randomly choosing a time each day has proven unsuccessful in getting any sort of solid writing done! What sort of writing routine works best for you? I’m curious to know how others manage their days while still finding time to write.
Now to shift gears a bit, unfortunately Joe’s side of the family lost someone early last week. Joe’s sister’s father-in-law passed away as a result of Cancer. We attended the funeral, about an hour and a half from where we live here in South Jersey, up to a wooded part of North Jersey where he and his wife lived together in a beautiful home in a gated development. A beautiful service – filled with quiet tears and plenty of hugs – was followed by a delicious meal and good company at a nearby catering company. Family talked – he was Spanish, so a beautiful mix of languages flowed throughout the day – and reminisced over wine and coffee. Even a few laughs could be heard.
The short story I entered to Glimmer Train, “Sirens Underwater”, focuses on the “proper etiquette” and common practices of funerals and the gatherings that follow: the whispers, the “I knew him or her for this long” conversations, the idea that happiness or noise of any kind is a disturbance of the memory of the deceased, and how a father and daughter break through those barriers following the death of a wife and a mother. While these scenarios are true in several cases, it was so refreshing to see the opposite following the death of Perfecto (what a beautiful name, is it not?).
While a few tears still wet the countertops and beautiful wooden floors of their home, the rooms were also filled with colorful Spanish music – I believe Joe’s brother-in-law, Dave, referred to a band called The Gypsy Kings, his father’s favorite – more food (even though we had all just eaten a three course meal), and plenty more wine. Dave gave me a quick tour of their home, and stopped in his parents’ bedroom to run a hand along a framed black-and-white photo of the two on their wedding day. My heart broke for a son who had lost his father. But he stayed very strong.
Dave’s brother – who I had never met – and I also had the pleasure of talking family, and he even asked me about any wedding plans Joe and I had in the works. Very generous of him on a day which was definitely not about us. The rest of the day was spent celebrating a life with noise and laughter and music rather than quiet reflection. And I’m sure Perfecto wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
After a quick You Tube search, I’m fairly certain this is one of the songs that shook the walls that day.
I’ll end this post with a small excerpt from that story, “Sirens Underwater” (I’d like to avoid posting the story in its entirety since I am still hoping to have it published elsewhere). Feedback is always appreciated.
Happy Tuesday, everyone. And thank you for reading. 🙂
I hugged tighter. Memories of my mother climbed from my eyes and jumped downward onto my father’s slacks, my dress, the wooden floor she’d polished, his spotless shoes. His larger hands had to pry mine away before he could scoop me up from my underarms, like thousands of times when I was much smaller and grabbed at him because my own legs were too tired, or I was just pretending. As my feet left the floor so suddenly did my strength, the burden of the day, the responsibility I’d been handed for hours on a Tuesday when I was seven.
As soon as I’d reached eye level I pressed my face in the crease between his neck and shoulder, into the warmth, into the faint smell of the cologne she’d make him wear on special occasions, and I wailed. It left me louder than I’d thought it would, in undulating pitches, in pauses filled with coughing fits or the need for more breath. Soon my father had joined me, his face buried the same way in my collarbone, his tears soaking the collar of my dress.
I didn’t know it at the time but it had grown to a deafening silence in every room: the whispers gone, the silverware put down, the flipping of pages or fluffing of pillows disrupted as everyone looked to each other, to the ceiling, or the walls, trying to make out where it was coming from, the sound of two sirens underwater.
I’ve been taking a little break from the novel business to work on a short story, so I figured I’d share a little excerpt here.
Not sure where the idea spawned from, but I recently found myself digging through some folders on my flash drive, and came across a paragraph or two I’d written months ago. My interest in it was re-sparked, so here are a few bits and piece of where it has gone since then!
When my mother died my father locked the car doors and we sat burning in the heat of the windshield for what felt like days. Her body lay somewhere in the belly of a morgue, a thumbprint on a white sheet that had been washed and used and reused. Her hair looked nice but her face looked different, sunken and wide, something pushing from the inside at the edges of her mouth and cheeks, a look of disappoint in her lips.
My mother had never worn more than a thin layer of eyeliner and never did more to her lashes than curl them with a metal object, and now she was done up like a carnival clown. Her skin had always been a palate of pastels: the color of the soft earth in our garden, the shade of the roses, the tint of the stepping stones, hues of pink and purple and blue spilling out at me like Easter morning. But death and the mortician had darkened her, turned her colors to those of late fall, when the world is most vulnerable.
I stared at the backs of knees in a slow-moving sea of black cotton, harmonies of silverware and whispers flooding the fuzzy space between my ears. I had never understood why people speak in such low tones when a loved one dies; they can hear you still – loud or soft or not speaking at all – from a throne of white, perched on the roof, taking up corners in the living room, unseen. Hands of strange passersby gave my thin shoulders small sympathetic squeezes (always with one hand, the other balancing a paper plate bending under the weight of pasta splattered with red sauce, and someone’s homemade potato salad), a learned response to death and all of those things that follow it.
I weaved through the crowd from our living room to the kitchen. A group of women stood near the granite island, the same look of disappointment in my mother’s face now reflected in each of theirs. One turned as I entered the room; red hair the fiery color of autumn was ignited at the edges as sunlight poured in from the window behind her. I lifted a hand for shade. Her green eyes softened and one corner of her mouth rose in a defeated half smile.
“Sarah,” she said. My name spilled from her mouth as a sad melody; “Sar-” a high pitched tune, the “ah” fading into the low range of an Alto. It was the safe song of grief and gentle condolences.
“Hi,” I replied. My own voice sounded smaller than usual, higher, even for seven. It’d been hours since I’d spoken to anyone.
She crouched to my level, away from the rest of the gossiping women, her knees making a loud cracking sound on the way down. Once at eye level I realized her hair color was probably not her own. She smoothed the wrinkles in her dark pencil skirt. I breathed in, the sweet, thick scents of a neighbor’s string bean casserole and someone’s blueberry pie filling my nostrils. My stomach moved in waves.
“Your mother was one of my best friends. I’m so sorry.”
I stared. What did it matter? Years later, after several encounters with death, I’d come to realize that in the face of personal tragedy people always blurt out their relationship status with the freshly departed.
“We went on a date once,” a high school classmate choked out between tears, after sophomore Andrew Sharpman hung himself in his parents’ attic.
When the little blonde girl two streets over was hit by a drunk driver while she chased a ball across the concrete, a neighbor at the funeral cried out to anyone who would listen: “I bought her an ice cream once,” she said.
I gave her a slight nod as if it was my turn to console her and she smiled, rising up again to dab at her face with a wrinkled tissue. She faded back into the crowd of other mothers who looked as I walked by, bits and pieces of “just a shame” and “what now” being dropped in my path.