Tuesday, June 21, 2016

2nd half of Chapter One of The Noon Siren

In town, a shoe repairman who makes most of his income from dry cleaning, listens to the siren and looks at his watch, proud that it’s exactly right and that it’s been exactly right for ten years now.  A watch he got at the corner pharmacy!  Something like this, a cheap watch that works so well, well it gives him pause each day.  There’s a sermon in this somewhere.  He should suggest it to the preacher when he comes in for his shirt and collars.
           A housewife, logged on to a chat room as Sexysue99, signs off.  Her husband will be home in five minutes. 
           In his restaurant, Beck Patterson whisks eggs to add to the meatloaf mixture.  Even though he knows it’s the noon siren, and expected, there’s a split second of an adrenalin rush that jostles the steady movement of his hand.  He’s the chief of the volunteer fire department.  Once a day he can ignore the siren.  The rest of the time it means: Move!  
           Others don’t hear the noon siren.  Janey Bruce is bent over her lunch tray, head turned toward Ray Jouriles, who’s looking back at her.  Ray was about to start eating a hamburger but has just forgotten that he’s hungry.  Janey’s holding her long, light-brown hair back so that Ray can see her face clearly.  She has almost mouthed the quiet words she just spoke, and now the two of them look for clues in each other’s faces, afraid of what was said, what will be said.  Ray hopes that what he has just learned is incorrect and all he has to do is check the box marked false and move on to a new question.  He thinks about the commercials he’s seen for pregnancy tests and knows Janey has used one of those stick things with the plus and minus signs, and suddenly he hates math, school, the people who make those tests, himself, Janey, and the kids in the cafeteria who keep talking because they are not dying here–not that’s he’s dying, but it feels like he is.  But he can’t hate Janey, not even for a moment, and with this realization, he loves her again, but he’s mad.
           What he wants to say is, why did you have to tell me here, right before my English final?  But he knows why.  She’s telling him the first minute she can because it’s huge and she can’t sit here during lunch and pretend that she isn’t pregnant.  To expect that would be to deny what they have: real, true love.  And she’s waiting patiently for him to speak, with fear but not anger, and Ray wants to be eighteen, or twenty, or thirty, and say everything will be fine. 
           “I love you,” he says, and feels like an adult, then he’s sixteen and scared out of his mind.  “What do you want to do?”
           “I don’t know,” she says, and wants to cry.  One tear runs down her cheek and she wipes it away.  What she wants is an abortion.  She knows that, but she can’t say that word in the school cafeteria, even mouth it.  And even if she wants one, her mom works at the hospital.  She’d know.
           “Okay,” he says.  “We’ll figure it out after school.”
           Janey nods and looks around to see if their conversation has been noticed.  It hasn’t.  Ray and Janey have spent many lunches hunched together, talking between themselves.  To everyone else, nothing has changed.

Lois Waters hadn’t noticed the noon whistle either.  She sits at her cluttered desk, in her cluttered office at the Whitehope Public Library, staring at a red pen lying across the order form for three hundred seventeen dollars and twenty-six cents worth of books.  She’s not thinking about the pen, or the order, or the unopened cherry yogurt in front of her.  Her whole body is in a state of stasis.  She, too, is not hungry, and when, a moment ago, she looked away from the yogurt, thinking I can’t possibly eat that, her eyes wandered to this red pen but her mind wandered to another place: a place of wanting.  She wants Amory back.  You can come back nowPlease, I want you back now.  Like a child she thinks that if she just asks nicely enough, someone will help her.  She knows that there’s no coming back from death, but emotionally, it’s a different story.
           Amory died eight years after Lois started working at the library and he came in to ask about a book.  He died a year and a half after his wife died.  Four and a half months after he asked Lois out.  Five weeks after he told her that he loved her and she said she loved him.  Three weeks after he asked her to marry him.  And two weeks before his daughter Stella was to fly in from D.C. with her adopted daughter, Lee, when he would have told Stella that he was in love with Lois, and introduced them.  He hadn’t told his daughter about Lois, worried Stella might be upset by his loving someone else so soon after her mother death.  But Stella should understand love, he told Lois, since she’d fallen in love with love over and over again.  He shook his head in sadness over his daughter’s bouts with love and men.
           Amory died in that momentous time while Lois was feeling intense, overwhelming passion, something she knew even then would not stay, would ebb imperceptibly into companionship.  There was nothing wrong with companionship and all the things that came with it, but passion, well that was different.  It made her young again.  Now she will never be young again.  Never again will she lie in his four-poster bed while he looks at her with eyes that dismiss her aging skin, seeing beauty that she herself has not seen in years.  The number of never agains is tremendous, and she has the urge to catalog them, but there is no order to the list; they are all equal in her wanting: relaxing at his kitchen table drinking coffee while Amory makes scrambled eggs with ham; dancing to Sinatra in the large room in his enormous and strange house; sitting on the porch swing in the dusk, waiting for deer to appear; walking through the woods as Amory tells tales of long ago when the Indians lived here.  So much in four months, and nowhere near enough.
           When he told her that he loved her, she had not returned his words, not for days and days.  Why did she wait?  Oh, she knows, really.  She was so afraid of the memory of his dead wife, afraid he couldn’t mean what he was saying.  Elizabeth was so vibrant, notorious in town for her dramatic entrances and her showy embraces.  Lois once saw Elizabeth hug the clerk at Fred’s Market when the girl mentioned she was getting married.  The clerk would never have told Lois something like that, nor would Lois have hugged her if she had.  What a strange thing to do!  But still, Lois respected Elizabeth for the way she lived her life publicly.  And she respected Elizabeth for another reason: she was married to Amory whom Lois had admired since the day he walked into the library eight years before.
           It wasn’t Lois who found his body.  She hadn’t slept there that night.  A woman who came once a month to clean had found Amory lifeless in bed.  Lois should have slept over.  She might have saved him, heard him moan in his sleep, seen his face go grey.  He might have called out to her.  Why hadn’t she stayed?  Because the cleaning woman was coming and Lois would have to leave before she came; it was embarrassing to be a woman in the house with another woman cleaning it.  “When we’re married,” she’d told Amory that night before she left, “I’ll clean the house myself.”  She looked forward to that.  Making it her own, moving some of the heavy antiques into the basement.  To move into another woman’s house–it was hard to imagine.  But Amory loved it, and it was a wonderful house.     
           She had to hear about his death from Ivy Gates, who worked part-time at the library, a notorious gossip, who hissed stories as if they were hot air escaping from an overblown balloon.  “That man in the white house, the one who comes in all the time for books on Indians, did you hear about him?”  Lois shook her head, hardly breathing, suddenly afraid.  She hadn’t spoken to Amory yet that day, but would be going there after work, although Ivy certainly didn’t know that.  Ivy didn’t wait for a reply anyway. “He died.  Cornelia Hunt found him dead in his bed this morning!  Dan Latts got the phone call at the firehouse and drove up there.  Dead.  Probably a heart attack.”
           Lois had flinched, then began trembling so badly she’d gone to sit down in the nearest chair, a child-sized chair in the children’s section.  Ivy had leaned over her, saying stupid things like she was sorry to surprise Lois this way, and she that knew Lois was fond of the man.  Lois waved her away, and when she finally could stand, said she had to leave for a while.  She’d gone to Amory’s house.  No one was there, but when she entered with her key, she could hardly think straight.  She did her best to remove her things, because Stella would certainly be coming soon, and finding Lois’s bathrobe and slippers might upset her.  But she’d been frightened someone would show up at any minute, and she left as quickly as she could–as if she was a criminal, breaking and entering!  She had nothing to be ashamed about, and yet. . . why had they been so secretive?  It wasn’t so much on purpose; more just who they were.  It had been a cold, wet spring; they had stayed inside the white house on the hill, and in those rare moments of sunshine had walked in the woods.  She was completely professional when Amory came to the library.  And neither one of them was at all social, or liked to eat out.  They had spent their time together alone. 
           At the funeral last week, Lois introduced herself to Stella as a friend of her father’s.  How could she say, “Hi, I’m the woman your father loved, but never told you about.”  How could you tell someone who has suddenly lost her father something like that?
           “Damn it, come back,” she says, no longer nice about it, no longer kind about it.  Then she forces herself to stand up, go back to work.  She’ll shelve books.  Keep herself moving.  But, in a back, narrow aisle, she stops, a thick book on gardening held out like an offering someone should take from her.  He’s really dead.
           She can’t possibly go on now, and yet she has two children, and three grandchildren, and she can’t just jump off a bridge.  That she can’t do this, a simple thing, really, makes her bitter.  She will grow bitter as she ages.  She can feel it in her bones: bitterness and arthritis. 

           She places the book on the shelf.  There is, as always, the slight pleasure of a thing put in its place.

Monday, June 6, 2016

As promised, the beginning of my novel The Noon Siren

Chapter One

In the deep woods with her daughter, Stella looks for a particular sight: two birch trees grown so closely together they’re a single tree until halfway up, where one veers away at an angle of fifteen degrees, needing its own light.
           The trees mark the spot. It’s a dump, of sorts. But why would someone leave behind all their glass bottles in the middle of nowhere? Was there a house here once, the foundation covered by the ferns and moss that grow wherever something has rotted away? She’s read that bona fide bottle collectors hunted for old outhouses because people tossed bottles down those dark holes, but she can’t imagine purposely doing that, and she’s someone who has done all sorts of things. She’s held a merganser dripping with black oil and kissed its head, climbed over the side of the Westminster Bridge to hang a banner reading NO NUCLEAR DUMPING, and once, even before she got her job with Greenpeace, lived on a fourteen foot square platform, a hundred feet high in a redwood tree, and when a man stood below her yelling obscenities, she pissed on him.
           She’s warned Lee: two bottles each, that’s all, no more. They have not come back to her parent’s home to take on more stuff, but to get rid of it. She needs to be relentless. Her parents spent their lives filling every nook and cranny with the past; antiques of every size and shape, from miniscule ivory portraits to eight-foot tall grandfather clocks, from pressed lace doilies to heavy wall tapestries, from the wooden carousel animals to everything of her brother Stephen’s, down to the buttons that flew from his shirt, discolored with miniscule dark spots. She’s the only one left now. What is she to do with blood-stained buttons? Every time she touches them , rubs one with a finger, which she can’t help doing, she cries for hours and her eyes ache for days, to say nothing of her heart.
           As a little child, even in her twenties, Stella sometimes wanted to clear out the entire house—see the walls, the floor, the space empty and free so she could think clearly. All that stuff, it was as if she were living in the past, as a history of herself, not belonging to her at all: she imagined her clothes, her toys, even her crayon drawings already laying on a shelf in an antique store somewhere, aged and faded, ignored and tattered. What would they be priced? What would be their worth? She worried that everything she did had  to be of great value, so it would be worthy of its space in the future.
           When she left home, she swore she would never collect anything, would be free of things, fill her life with life. Easier said than done. But how could she say no to her daughter when she asked Stella to show her the bottle dump. We break the rules for those we love, she thinks. 
           She discovered it the first time during one of their visits home, a week after her mother’s diagnosis. Lee stayed by her grandma’s bed, reading out loud from a first edition Oz book while her grandpa held her grandma’s hand, his eyes so red and watery that Stella had to run from the sight of the three of them, get out of the house before she was swallowed with grief. Instead of her usual jog along the road, she swerved into the woods, leaping over fallen limbs, thin branches whipping against her out-stretched arms. When she came to a rest, her chest aching, she looked down and saw it, a flicker of light on a smooth glass surface. She carried back two bottles, one clear with a crisscross pattern, the other green, medicinal looking. Neither had a scratch, and she believed they were a sign that her mother would get better. So much for portents.
            That her father has just died, that she has lost both parents in less than two years, stuns her. She is not a why me kind of person, but she wants to know why them. Two good people in love with each other, surviving forty-five years of marriage and the death of a child. Stella stops for a moment, blinks back the start of more tears. But she’s cried out, isn’t she? No. It’s just too much.  She isn’t.

“You sure you know where we’re going?” Lee asks.
           “Just trust me, will you?”
           Lee sighs. “This better be worth it.”
           “Come on. Buck up. You can do it.”  Stella grins. “It’s gorgeous out here, right?”  Lee doesn’t answer, and Stella takes that for a yes.
           But it’s not all pretty. They just passed half of a rusted oil drum. God knows how that got there. What is the matter with people? At least she’s raising Lee to understand what pressing care this world needs. And Lee is bright, wiser than Stella was at the same age, more aware. Even Lee’s face looks wise: the narrow eyes that always seem squinted in thought, the tight press of her lips, even the sharp edge of her bangs makes Lee seem older than ten, and it’s possible she’s only nine. There is no way to know for certain. When Stella brought Lee home from China she was round as a ball. It was the food they fed her, the rice and noodles. But now Lee has thinned out, her legs grown long, her high cheekbones showing. She will be a great deal of worry as a teenager, stunning at twenty.
           Then Stella sees the conjoined trees, a ray of sunlight brightening the white bark. “There! To the left! See?”
           Lee stops and cocks her head, then nods and takes off at a run to where the earth lumps up, glossy wet glass poking through the ground as if swimming in a dark sea. Along with Stella’s backpack filled with juice boxes, granola bars and binoculars, they’ve brought two spades to pry the bottles out of the dirt, and a canvas bag to carry them home. Stella kneels down next to Lee and hands her a spade. The earth is damp and spongy after all the rain of the last two weeks, but most of the bottles are buried deep, and those on the surface are stuck fast by thin green roots meandering into their open necks, plants growing inside bottles like miniature terrariums. Water drips onto their bent heads, the leaves giving way to last night’s rain.
           The calm after the storm. Or does she have that backwards?  

Lee digs, excited each time she finds an unbroken bottle, rubbing off the clotted dirt, wondering what it was used for. These bottles are like so many of the things her mom has shown her, some pretty, some not so pretty: the fins of dolphins, the shady shape of salmon, the pointy beaks of baby eagles, the circular ends of pipes spilling chemicals into rivers, the pipes disappearing into the banks, connecting to factories. Lee stood outside one of those factories with her mom and the people her mom works with, everyone holding signs that Lee helped to paint. Now it’s just the two of them, and she likes this much better. There’s no protest, no angry faces, no one getting hurt. No one saying the world is doomed.
           “Watch out for the broken ones,” her mom says.
           Lee holds her breath a moment, waiting for the rest of the lecture, about taking only two, about waste and pollution and maybe even something about global warming, but it doesn’t come. Instead, her mom laughs.
           “What?” Lee asks.
           “Look at us. We’re a mess! Isn’t this great? Here’s to mud in your eye!”
           “I have mud in my eye?”  Lee swipes at her face, rubbing her eyes.
           Her mom laughs harder, the kind that can turn to crying out of nowhere. “Now you do! God, I love this place!”
           “But you’re still going to sell it?” Lee asks. “Don’t, okay? I want to keep it.”
           Her mom shakes her head. “It’s not an abandoned puppy. It’s too much work.”
           “We could keep an abandoned puppy?” Lee feels the smile come to her lips. Maybe she has just talked her mom in a circle that leads to a puppy. Her mom loves strong logic.
           “Oh, you’re good,” her mom says, pointing at Lee with a muddy finger. “Good one. But no dog, and only two bottles, and we sell the house and the store.”
           Well, she tried, didn’t she? You gotta keep trying.

Stella turns her face back to the earth. She can’t keep the house or the antique store. The thought catches in her chest, a hard held breath. She could only come here maybe a week or two every year. And the house is enormous, and in the middle of nowhere, near the toes of the Allegheny mountains, hours from an airport. She needs to be someplace where she can get to someplace else quickly. It wouldn’t make sense to keep this place. Would her parents understand? Didn’t they know they’d be leaving her a legacy she couldn’t accept; to love this place as much as they did?   
           And what’s the matter with her that she’s mad at her father for dying so suddenly, leaving her with this mess? I’m sorry, Daddy. I’m not really mad at you. I miss you so much.
           But she’s confused, and certainly needs to ask him some questions. What’s with the pale pink reading glasses in the sunroom, and the copy of Eat, Pray, Love? He was reading that? And what about the very drab but very female cardigan sweater folded neatly under the table where she found the reading glasses, a few sizes too small for the cleaning woman? And on the grocery list attached to the fridge with a magnet there are items, half and half, cranberry juice, eggs, written in someone else’s handwriting. Her father didn’t even use half and half. He drank his coffee black.
           He must have been seeing someone. Who? Why not tell me? What did he think she might do? Protest? Who has she become that her father was afraid of her?
           But what if he was right to be worried? How could he love someone else other than her mother? Elizabeth hasn’t been dead all that long! I wouldn’t have been mean about it, if he told me. He was wrong about that. He hadn’t given her a chance to prove herself. So she is mad at him. She’s mad at her dead father, and now he’s not there to answer a million questions she should have asked him before, and her eyes well, but she can’t do this right now, she can’t cry, because she’s having a lovely time with Lee. She’s not going to scare Lee by bursting into tears. She’s getting pretty damn sick of being tough though. Really, really sick of it. Apparently other people are getting sick of her being tough, too.
           Lee digs carefully around a bottle, her face intent. A child in the woods. When Stella was this age she had a fantasy about living in the woods, surviving on berries and wild onions. She wants to do that now. Ignore the house, the responsibilities, the pale pink reading glasses and the cardigan sweater. She wants to pull the earth over her head and sleep until everything is taken care of. Everything. The world saved, time for peace and quiet, maybe even love again.
           “Look at this one!” Lee shouts.
           In the distance, from the direction of town, the noon whistle wails, a deep, rich tone loud enough to be heard for miles and miles, a daily testing of the emergency siren. At noon it simply means all is well, the siren works, we will alert you if need be. At other times, day or night, its means fire, pain, something has gone wrong. And then, you have to count: Two blasts of the siren means: trained volunteers please check your cell phones and see if we need you, three: we need a medic and firefighters, four: all hands on deck, and hurry, five: we’re calling in the next town’s volunteer crew, too. Six blasts mean get your ass here now, this is the big one.

           Even at noon, Stella tenses for a full minute, waiting for the second blast, though it doesn’t come. It’s in her nature, knowing that all is not well, and she should be prepared to act.