I haven’t been writing my short pieces lately; instead, I have been drawing. Here’s one of my great-nephew, Hudson.
You received it as a gift—a ceramic house to set on your mantle or on a shelf or on a table. You hold the house in the palm of your hand—a triangle roof and a square base. No windows. No doors. Just the shape. Simple. The house a child would draw if you said, “Draw a house.” Or the house in a dream with no entrance and no exit. You’re just suddenly there. In the box of it, or you’re looking at it from a distance. Or there it is in a coloring book. You color it blue or brown. Maybe you add windows and doors. Even a dormer. And then the house starts getting complicated, and you can no longer hold it in your hand or remember your childhood or even dream it. Suddenly the house becomes a cape or a colonial or a bungalow. And there are too many words to remember, and too many memories to hold onto, and too much loss. The world is no longer the world you knew, and houses stretch for miles: triangles atop boxes. And you want to hold one in your hand. More than anything, you want to hold a house in your hand. And you reach out for one, but it stays just beyond your grasp. Never simple anymore. It is not the house in the coloring book. It is instead a structure full of rooms and doorways and hallways. The hallways are the hardest. They are narrow and long. You walk down one and push open a door. You hear the creak of its hinges and swear that one day you will oil them. You look inside the room, and maybe there’s a bed and a desk. A lamp sits on a table beside the bed. Maybe it is lit. Maybe a book waits by the lamp. Maybe a person, someone you love, holds the book. And that is familiar. And you leave the hallway and walk toward the familiar. Or you close that door and continue down the hallway and open another door. Its hinges do not creak, and the room behind the door looks like no room you’ve ever seen. All the windows on all the walls are wide open. Wind blows curtains up like wings. The wind takes you, and suddenly you are out the window and flying. You have wings. And nothing is familiar save for the houses below you—so far away you can only see their shapes—triangles and boxes. You want to hold one in your hand.
Here’s a little piece I extracted and revised from something I was working on years ago—a piece of another novel.
They called her Four-Eyes. She didn’t care for the name; in fact, had another perfectly good one that her parents had given her. Still, her peers insisted on calling her Four-Eyes. The girl, almost blind from birth, had to wear corrective lenses so thick they made her eyes appear to throb behind them. It didn’t help matters that she was fat, that her parents were fat, and that they all lived on what was considered Willowood’s wrong side of the tracks.
Readers, I’m trying a new approach to the Opal stories. Instead of writing in sequence, I’m just letting myself discover this character in various circumstances. I gave myself the exercise of putting Opal into a situation and seeing how she handled it. This is what developed from that.
Opal was a afraid of the dark—especially Aunt Frances’ cellar.
The little girl kicked at the leaves in the gutter. All the way down the street and back up the other side, she waded through the stream of orange, red, and yellow. She liked how the leaves cracked and rattled. She liked how, when the wind blew, they jumped off the ground in groups, swirling and dancing, finally landing back on the street. One or two still clung to branches, as if they might escape their fate below.
Soon the neighbors would pile their leaves into bags and send them away somewhere. The little girl hated when that happened. The colors looked like jewels on the ground and in the sky. She wanted them to stay forever.
Birdy had all of her teeth until one day the dentist said he would have to pull that back molar out. So that’s what he did. “Can I have it?” Birdy slurred through numb lips. “Really?” the dentist replied. “You want this?” The dentist held it up between tongs—bloody roots and all. Birdy nodded. So the dentist cleaned it up and offered it to Birdy. “Can you drill a hole in it for me?” she asked. The dentist did that, too. Birdy put the tooth on a string and hung it around her neck. Birdy’s mother, a church going woman, could barely stand the sight of a tooth dangling on her daughter’s chest. “What?” her mother said. “Are you a pagan now?” Birdy considered the question. She considered hiding the tooth beneath her t-shirt. After all, she had been brought up to hide stuff. It’s what people did: Play your cards close to your chest. Don’t show them how you really feel. These were the mottos of Birdy’s world. And now this tooth hung there for everyone and her mother to see. The thought made Birdy smile, her first real, true smile. All of her teeth were showing. Every last one.
When the lightning came, it lit up the whole of the night. Not just the sky. In that instant, it was daylight. I got kind of disoriented like the way a pilot must when the horizon is no longer the horizon and when the instruments are more accurate than eyesight. I’m not a pilot, but that’s what I hear. And that lightning, it really did disorient me. It was like time changed gears. Like the rules were all new. Like I had a chance.
I used to watch westerns all the time, and there was always—I mean always— a “last chance” something: last chance stagecoach, last chance saloon, last chance watering hole. You name it, there’s a last chance for everything.
It rained. It rained and rained. It rained so hard the windows cried. It rained so hard the roof thundered. It rained for so many days the girl no long believed in the sun, no longer believed in the light. The rain came down so hard, it knocked leaves off of trees. It splattered dirt out of flowerbeds. It even took blooms off of branches, leaving red and yellow memories on the slick pavement.
And so she went out into it. All around her people scurried for doorways and bus stops. Some held umbrellas turned inside out in the wind. Some held newspapers over their heads. But she did none of these things. Instead, she stood perfectly still. She waited while the water soaked her clothes, her hair, her skin. She felt the weight of all that water, as if she might become rooted there on that city street.
“The brain has corridors”
She moved from street to street, from building to building, from floor to floor. She had done this for more years than she cared to count. In fact, she had grown tired of counting: one year became five became fifteen and twenty as fast as fists could unfold. The passage of time exhausted her, felt like running in place, eyes blinking, clouds covering the sun.
“You are not enough.”
She said it out loud.
She noticed a big house reflected in the pond: an exact upside down replica with windows, a front door, and faded red paint. She could even see the half-closed curtains. It was as if the house were built inside the water.
She sat on the pond’s edge and took off her shoes and socks. She let her feet plop right between the curtains. She slid down further over the edge and then down into the watery window.
The little girl sat on the stoop and looked out across the flat land to the place where the sun sat half circle on the horizon. She waited. She wanted to feel the earth turn.
She heard yesterday that the sun did not really rise in the sky. “The sun neither rises nor sets,” her teacher said. “It stays still, and the earth rolls around it.”
It was enough to make her crazy—the constant yearning for something she could not name. She saw glimpses of it—in the smile of a new friend, in the tree limbs scraping the sky, in the lone crocus on her lawn—glimpses that just made her want it more.
The wind picked up, and the clouds crawled in. And when the rain began, she listened to its steady beat on the roof. She watched it cry down the windowpanes. She imagined herself on an old raft, a dog at her side, letting the water take her down the river of her street and out into some new adventure.
The man sits on the subway. His elbow rests on the small ridge of window. His chin rests on his hand. Outside his window, tunnel gray and underground blurs rush by. He is Watercolor on Newsprint, 1962. I stand in a gallery watching him through a wooden frame; he is my window. I feel as if I know him—his tan coat, his brown boots, his deep eyes resting and open.
I leave the gallery. I step out onto wet pavement. I walk through the puzzle of parked cars. My ears fill with horns and the steady swish of tires on slick roads. I walk down stairs and under the city. I wait for the E Train, and when it comes, the doors slap open. I feel the breeze and bump of other riders—the dance of step off, step on. I find a seat. My elbow finds its place. My face leans into my hand. Outside is tunnel gray—underground blurs rush by. I am watercolor. I am fading.
I heard the tiniest of heartbeats. Ba-dump. Ba-dump. It wasn’t a Tell-Tale heartbeat, nothing frightening like that. This heartbeat had a soothing rhythm. From what I could tell, the beat came from the trunk of an old tree just off the path where I had been walking. I approached the trunk and put my ear up to its grooves. I listened. No heartbeat. I waited, and then I heard it again—faint, in the distance. A little faster now. Badumpbadumpbadump. I followed the sound and ended up at another tree—this one full of crows and their caw caw cawing. “Shhhh,” I called out. “I am listening for a heart.” One of the crows looked down at me and laughed, or that’s how I perceived it. The crows flew off one by one, and I waited for the heartbeat. When it finally started up again, it seemed to be coming from underneath the snow. So I dug down with my mittened hands. No heart. I sat completely still. Me. The snow. The tree. The crows cawing in the distance. And then I heard it again. But this time, I did not go searching. I sat still. I did nothing. I just listened.
Jules reached inside for a quarter or a tissue or a chapstick. Anything. Her pockets were empty. Not even a lucky rock. As a rule, Jules never left home with empty pockets. It was a thing she had. Pockets were meant to hold stuff. To make up for their emptiness, she put her hands there. A passerby kept his head down, his own hands lost inside his overcoat. In fact, all the passersby, men and women, looked just the same: sad, drawn, a bit lost. Jules could barely stand the gloom of it all—the gray sidewalk, the overcast sky, the cold air. Her empty pockets seemed even emptier. And so she dug deeper and deeper. She wanted to find something—anything. And finally, there it was, in the deepest recess of her pocket: a clear marble, the tiniest of crystal balls. Jules stood there, in the middle of the crowded city sidewalk and held the transparent orb in the palm of her hand. And people stopped to see what was there, what might be in store, what the future might hold. People needed something, however small, that was clear and round and easy to carry. Something to keep forever in their pockets.
“If we don’t change the direction we are headed,
we will end up where we are going.”
—Chinese Proverb (found on the inside of a bottle cap)
For weeks, the leaves glittered on the trees. Now and then, an overcast sky made everything like a dream. She had this idea—that maybe, just once, autumn would stay. The leaves would hang on in that in between world—winter might happen somewhere, but not here. The trees would not have to go bare. But then one morning as usual, she took the dog out. His paws rattled through dry leaves, gone brown and dry. She did not want to look up and see the bare limbs. So she kept her head down. The dog, accustomed to his daily route up the street, aimed his nose there. But she tugged at his leash, said, “This way today.” She pointed down the hill. The dog resisted, pulled hard against the leash—even sat down, stubborn and sure of his habits. He cocked his head the way dogs do. “C’mon,” she tugged playfully at the leash. And then, also the way dogs do, he looked up at some invisible noise. Her eyes followed his gaze. And there it was—one last red leaf twirling down toward them. She reached out to catch it, but the dog was faster. He leapt, and he caught it in his mouth. The way dogs do.
Rita is still in intensive care, but there are indications that she is on the upswing. Thank you, readers, for thinking of her. I miss her very much.
My students and I are experimenting with building a collaborative class website through pbwiki. It’s fun. I created a main page that introduces the course theme: imagination. That page also includes links to assignments and to students. Branching out from that main page, students are building their own “homes” from which they can link their individual work. On each page, there is a comment function, so that students and I can go in and converse.
I heard the tail end of an interview about the 100th anniversary of Anne of Green Gables. I had never read the book, so I found it at the library, and I am reading it now. The young orphan Anne cares a great deal about the “scope of imagination”—as she relates in this early scene:
Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive—it’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we knew all about everyting, would it? There’d be no scope for imagination then, would there?