October 14, 2012: They were gone.
October 12, 2012: We lived like this.
CHRISTINE RICE is the founder of HyperText, an on-line literary journal that kicks some serious butt. Really. Check it out. More than that, though, (and that, those of you who know about these sorts of things can attest, is pretty huge in itself) Christine Rice is one helluva a writer and a teacher of writing. For many years now, she has been the faculty advisor/managing editor for Columbia College Chicago Fiction Writing Department’s award-winning literary journal Hair Trigger, and has coordinated the same department’s Young Authors’ Contest and Conference. In short, she supports the work of others–writers just starting out, and those who have been plugging away for a good long time.
Okay, that said–some months ago we had a little soiree at our apartment (we do these salons a lot here, with writers, artists, musicians, performers) and it was Chris’s time to read something. She pulled this single sheet of paper out of a back pocket or something, and flattened it out on her thigh, and then began reading. Sweet Jesus. We all leaned forward, listened hard, barely breathed until she finished. You’ll see what I mean when you read an excerpt from that piece here. (I’ve asked her to bend my rules a little and give us a longer excerpt than I usually post. She’s doing double duty here, because the piece was inspired by one of my daily journal prompts.)
And now we get to see where this sort of wonderful stuff happens.
CHRISTINE: We converted this room into my office after our youngest daughter outgrew her crib. It’s tiny but uncomfortably fits one sixty-pound dog, two attitudinal cats, four stuffed IKEA bookcases, two file cabinets shoved into the corner under the window, a printer, an amazing bentwood stool I found in a dumpster (now covered by about fifty pounds of books), photos of my kids/husband/mom, my dad’s WWII War medals and my flea-market art.
In this photo, you can see my favorite find: an angel praying with stars swirling around her. It’s like stained glass on paper — really simple but lovely. Sw. Krzysztof meczennik, who, apparently, is the Patron Automobilistow, hangs next to her. In the foreground, there’s a little shelf with a bottle full of origami doves I found washed up on the shore of Montrose beach. Behind that, there’s this awesome little watercolor (given to me by Liz Yokas) of a lady I call ‘Enid.’ Next to Enid sits a favorite toy I’ve kept since I was a kid: a ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ PeePul Pals book and its accompanying doll.
What you can’t see are the books that inspire me. I set up a little shrine of books by writers I know and admire to help me through those days when folding laundry/cleaning the tub/watching 30 Rock seem like attractive alternatives to getting my butt in the chair.
This summer, for the first time in a very long time, I was able to write from 5:30 am to 10:30 am. Why? It’s the first year that my 9-year-old has slept past six am.
Yeah. Small miracles.
An Excerpt from “Solid-State Reactions” by Christine Rice
This is how they get you: your whole life they chock you full of stories about princes and poison apples and kindly dwarves and animals that chitter secrets in your ear and bunion-inducing glass slippers and just-right ruby slippers and needles that prick and the frog prince and a nice girl falling in love with a beast and, the next thing you know, you’re in the backseat a Monte Carlo with him pushing into you and all you’re doing is looking out the back windshield, into the blackness above the hill top, wondering what’s next. Not what’s next after he pulls out but what’s next. What’s really next, you know? Next for you because, as you’ve been thinking for an awfully long time, you’ve gotta get out of here. As that thought hits you full force, his torso pounding against the backs of your thighs and him asking, begging, really, ‘Can you, can you, can you?’ and you not even listening to or, for that matter, feeling him, because the promise of something bigger than his football player love, bigger than this town fills you with such possibility and hope, that you push his sweaty body off, climb through the bucket seats, pop open the door and dance naked into the starless night.
“What’s wrong with you?” He’s hopping on one foot, pulling up his jeans, buttoning his fly. He’s got Astrid’s jeans crumpled in a ball under his armpit. “I mean, really? What is wrongwith you?”
Below, the lights of town cast a dim glow against the rime of clouds so close and thick that Astrid wants to reach up, pluck off a chunk of that marshmallow-crème and pop it in her mouth. Let it fill her. Instead, she throws her arms above her head and twirls toward him.
He’s laughing, now, as she grabs his hand and dances the way her folks used to dance on New Year’s Eve: all arms and knees and twists and claps. She barely feels the cold. Not yet. Not as her bare feet slip on the icy tracks made by countless other pick-ups and vans and souped-up Chevelles and Camaros. Any other guy, she knows, would be pissed. But not Paulie. He’s crazy about her. Dopey nutsy head over heels in love with Astrid crazy.
Astrid knows this. She doesn’t take it for granted. Or him for that matter. But he’s dumb as a stick. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb. They both know it. He with a certain resigned sadness. She like a knife-prick to the ribs. He’s so beautiful, though; so gracefully stunning when he moves on that football field, the crowd cheering his name as he steps into the pocket, scans the field, assesses every moving part, fakes, twirls, stutter-steps, throws; the slow arc of his hand as the ball explodes in a perfect spiral. Some day, she hopes, his brain will catch up with his body.
He’s been a pig to slaughter. Ever since his mom realized he could throw like that it’s been football, football, football. Astrid tries to help. She reads his Shakespeare assignments out loud, acts out the parts, emphasizing the fact that Desdemona is a woman. He nods, leaning against his headboard, fingers laced behind his head, through the honey curls, eyes closed but, when he opens his eyes and she asks what he’s learned, he only says, ‘You’re so beautiful, Astrid’ or ‘I love you, Astrid’ and she becomes furious with him. FURIOUS! And rants about how he’ll fail the Shakespeare test on Monday morning and how his brain is the size of a walnut and how she’ll go off to an East-coast college and screw brainy boys whose parents summer on Martha’s Vineyard, for God’s sakes, away from him, away from his football-addled brain, away from his posters of Ronald Reagan’s disembodied head floating over the American flag and ZZ Top and Bob Seger and Boston and Queen and Styx and Grand Funk Railroad and he’ll be stuck throwing and throwing and throwing at some Midwestern university with corn-fed girls who’ll wear him like a bracelet. She says all of this in a single breath and, when she finishes, he moves over to where she sits at his desk, twirls her toward him, snakes a hand between her knees to spread them apart and, as his hand moves into the middle of her, he looks into her face and makes her promise.
“Promise. Not ever, Astrid. I’m telling you. It’ll kill me.”
“It’ll only kill you if you let it, Paulie.”
“Then I’ll let it,” he says as his face disappears in her lap like a child.
When Astrid walks into her house after ski practice that Tuesday afternoon, her skin ripples in gooseflesh. It’s dark and, without her mother’s usual greeting from somewhere in the sprawling suburban ranch, ominously still. As she turns into the family room, the only light comes from the television: Walter Cronkite detailing the conclusion of the Iranian hostage crisis and listing the names of the freed hostages. Not even his voice can sooth the sandpaper feeling scratching her conscious. She turns down the volume and feels something sticky and wet on the RCA’s silver knob. She rubs her thumb and forefinger together and knows, without consciously knowing, the weight of that liquid, the metallic smell of it, the dark burgundy color of it.
She’s turning, now, leaving behind the family room’s green shag carpeting, fireplace and paneled walls, walking briskly through the kitchen, over the foyer’s dark slate, down the long hall with every school photo — K through 11 — framed and hung, lining both walls, her image watching her, to her mother’s bedroom. It used to be her parents’ bedroom until her mom couldn’t take it anymore and kicked him out. She knows, even before she turns into the bedroom that her mother is gone. Gone is the way she’ll refer to her mother’s absence. Never suicide. Never dead. And only to herself. She’ll never say it out loud. She’ll never humor the shrinks and counselors and social workers and teachers who try to draw her out. They’ll lure her with tempting morsels; dangling guidance and mentorship and happiness and healingbut she’ll know they’re all full of shit.
She stops in front of the king-size bed, next to the mahogany tallboy dresser that once held her father’s socks and boxers and Munsingwear golf shirts and that Mexican mug full of coins and business cards and feels an overwhelming emptiness. He’d cleared everything out, bit by bit, whenever her mother wasn’t home. Astrid would sit on the bed, her knees under her chin, watching her boyishly lanky father fill suitcase after suitcase until every little bit of him was gone.
But now she’s afraid to move, afraid to turn that corner into the master bath because she sees a trail of blood — small dots getting bigger the way the highway’s yellow line disappears beneath the Caprice — leading into the bathroom. She’s started moving again and, as she does, something begins ringing and ringing and ringing until she can’t tell if it’s the roaring of fear or something more familiar but it propels her into the bathroom where she sees her mother’s feet and, for an instant, tries to convince herself — within that moment of sheer terror — that her mother’s pumps, lying sideways on the light blue tile, her feet crossed demurely at the ankle, look normal. But there’s the empty prescription bottle next to her mother’s knee and the slime of blood trailing over the sink, down the white cabinet to the floor that finally puddles around each of her mother’s wrists. She’s landed on her side with her head bent abnormally against the shower glass; her eyes open as if she might be looking under the cabinet for a missing earring. Her right palm, with the phone ringing next to it, rests next to her thigh. There’s a long vertical slit beginning just above the wrist, the blood frilly and dark purple now, edging the vein. It’s the vein Astrid used to trace with her pinky finger, the dark one that bisects her mother’s narrow wrist. The other arm crosses her chest so that her palm rests just below her shoulder.
Astrid’s trying to process all of it but that ringing is incessant and time has ceased to exist, like crossing into another dimension where everything has happened that she’d always known and feared. She kneels between the cabinet and her mother and her first instinct is to wrap her palms around those cuts, staunch them somehow, but the ringing keeps up and that single strand of pearls looks so beautiful against the olive skin of her mother’s neck, just falling above her clavicle, her black hair tumbling in corkscrew curls onto her cashmere v-neck, that Astrid thinks she couldn’t possibly be dead. Could she?
She’s afraid to touch her but something finally snaps her to and she walks back into the room to pick up what she recognizes, now, as the phone and it’s Auntie, her mother’s oldest sister, whose voice sounds frantic as she asks, Astrid? And Astrid manages to say something like, There’s so much blood, and Auntie asks, Where? And Astrid says, On mama and the floor– but Auntie cuts her off as if she knew all along how she’d answer and, before she hangs up, says she’ll be right there, that she’ll call an ambulance so Astrid kneels next to her mother and does what she’d wished she’d done when she’d found her: wraps her palms around her mother’s wounds.
The next thing Astrid knows there’s pounding on the front door and paramedics rushing down the hallway, knocking her school photos off the wall and, when they get to the bathroom, one of them picks up the empty prescription bottle and says, loud enough for Astrid to hear, Barbiturates and a razor blade? Jeezus, she didn’t leave anything to chance, and one medic tilts her mother’s head back and lowers his face to hers and the other fills a vile and prepares a needle which he punches into her mother’s upper arm, right in the muscle, and it’s this gesture that finally makes Astrid’s knees buckle, standing there on the threshold, her hands gripping the door frame until she feels her nails digging into the wood to hold herself up. As quickly as it starts, it seems, the flurry of activity ends and the medics push themselves up off their knees. Auntie and Uncle rush in and Auntie stands with one hand over her mouth, a string of creamy-red Rosary beads looped over her index finger, the other resting on the counter in her sister’s blood.
→All right, you can breathe now. See what I mean? Thanks so much, Christine Rice, for the visit to your space and the time in the company of your words. And to everyone, thanks again for reading. -PMc←
October 11, 2012: The day he died…
A delightful friend and colleague of mine, Deb Siegel, recently shared with me a sort of photo essay of the various places she sat and read The Temple of Air this past summer while she was visiting her family camp in the Belgrade Lakes district of Maine (think On Golden Pond.) I don’t think she will mind if I share these photos with you, and also her very lovely note:
Besides just being a really nice thing for someone to do for me, this photo collection is especially meaningful for a few reasons. My brother Wesley McNair is the poet laureate of Maine. The title story, “The Temple of Air,” was first ever read from at Stonecoast Writers Conference (University of Southern Maine) where I was so lucky to have been part of the faculty for a number of years. (I’d love to come back; will you have me, Stonecoast?) The fine writer, editor, and founder/director of Fairfield University’s low-residency MFA Creative Writing Program Michael White heard me read from this story and suggested I submit it to an anthology he and Alan Davis edited, American Fiction: The Best Unpublished Short Stories by Emerging Writers. I did, and they published it. A number of stories that appear in The Temple of Air had their first outings at Stonecoast during faculty readings.
So it is a full-circle sort of thing that The Temple of Air got to spend summer days in Maine. Thanks, Deb, for sharing your trip with my book. And as always, to you and to everyone else–thanks for reading! -PMc