Go Out, Go Out

“Go out,” she said.  His protector, his champion. Old Granny: mother of none; keeper of all. He glanced up at her over the faded cloth of the table, watching her peel a potato, the sharp edge of the blade coming up soft against her thumb, over and over again, never going farther than the peel.  The brown petals of skin fell into an enamel pan on her lap.

“Go out and find me something to fix with these taters.”

His heart skipped once in his chest, a pang that drew his hand up to touch the spot.  He glanced away from her, thinking two thoughts at once.  Where had he put his boots? And: if Baizie came to supper, she’d tell about what happened at the creek.

“You left them by the door,” she said.

He rose, moving heavily to take up the boots.  His feet took their place in the familiar leather, pushing air up his pant legs, an earthy breath that smelled like him and animal and uncounted weeks of working in the sun and the rain, sliding on muddy hillsides, crackling the floor of the forest.

When he was little, Daddy took him hunting.  It was a foggy morning, warm and cool colliding.  When the first shot met its mark, he was sent into the trees to find the squirrel.  The soft fur was warm in his hands, the animal holdings it heat, though its breath was stolen for good.  It hurt him to think of the little thing dying. He put it in the crook of his arm and walked back slowly, gentle like he was holding a baby.

“Put it there,” his father said.

When he didn’t want to let it go, the man who was almost a stranger, if as much to himself as his son, turned away with darkening eyes.  He fished a cigarette out of his pocket and smoked it slowly, squinting into the depth of the forest. Then he shifted the weight of his gun, peered through the sights, and lifted it again to kill another squirrel.

“That ought to keep your hands full,” he said, his voice a coarse rasp, like the shovel scraping the stove when they took out the ashes. And he chuckled with the cigarette in his lips, though maybe he hadn’t meant to sound cruel.

It had been a long time since that morning in the forest, though the memory came back at queer moments. He could see his feet, small as they were then, landing carefully in the leaves underneath as he walked to get the second squirrel. When he cozied it next to the first one, he saw the cradle of his arm was filled with blood.  When they got home, Granny eyed the stain, cocked her head at an angle.

“Did you like hunting with your Daddy?”

He shook his head, then thought better of it. Maybe Daddy would mind.

“It was okay.”

But when he looked over at his father, the man was pulling off his socks with eyes seeing another room.  As was the case most often, his father was there and not there.  Like the dead squirrel giving off warmth, yet no longer in the world of living things.

“Well, take Casper’s coat, the long grey one on my door, and get me some eggs,” Granny said. “And when you get back, go out and run around a while, till you’re good and tired.”

She knew he was tangled up inside better than he knew it himself.

________________________

He shook off the memory of that day and stepped out into the spring evening.  A breeze was stirring the forsythia, yellow arms waving with joy that he did not feel in his own heart.  He dug a cigarette out of his shirt pocket and smoked it slowly as the light shifted, the sky over the meadow turning violet and lemonade.

When he came back into the house later, carrying a hen with a broken neck, Granny was pouring water and broth over beans for soaking.  She had the ham hock sizzling in a skillet with some onions and grease from the morning bacon.  She glanced up at him.

“Put her on the table,” she said. “So I can clean her.”

As she took the bird in hand, she told him about a peddler who used to come around with catfish and trout for sale.  He’d heard the story before, but it calmed him when she talked about the past.  “The best catfish you ever saw.  He was a born fisher, that one. Tall.  He always walked a little bent in the middle, like to bring himself down closer to the rest of us.  Kind of a gentleman type, like Ray Burke at the grocery store.  The pinkest cheeks, pinker than a bride’s bouquet.”

She shrugged, “He smelled like hair tonic and, if you got real close, like booze. I guess he liked to take a nip now and again. Maybe that’s what made him so mild and gentle.  Never cut in when you were talking, always asked what you thought you wanted to pay.”

“He fell on hard times, came one day to sell me watermelon.  Said he’d lost his luck for fishing.  His hands shook so bad, I guess I knew what I had to do. So I gave him a little whisky, put him to bed in the barn, and sat out under the biggest moon you ever saw and ate a whole watermelon instead of dinner.  Figured that squared us up.”

Her laughter came up out of her like the sound of a hundred eggs cracking. It was like that when she was happy: breakfast for everyone and some more left over just in case.  They were quiet for a while, she pulling feathers slow, ignoring the little fluffs that clung to her hands.  Then, as he though to take off his boots again and bent forward to do it, she looked across at him with soft eyes.

“Baizie stopped me in the yard this morning. She’d come up through the woods so quick, she could hardly catch her breath.”

He felt himself freeze slowly, like the pond come winter, the cold starting at his head, taking his heart and slowly covering every inch of him.  He was probably grey like ice, he thought.  If you threw a stone at him now, he’d crack into shards. The stone would sink out of sight.

“When I was your age, there was a boy I loved. He was prettier than most girls. Curls all over his head, light brown that turned to gold the first day of haying.  I watched him like a hawk, every minute, wished he’d look up and find me looking. Wished he’d know what was in my heart. And terrified lest he figured it out, too.”

Granny was done with stripping the hen.  She grabbed up her knife and took off the head, drawing it away from the neck with the side of the blade.  She dropped the bird into a bowl to let it bleed out.  Then she went to the tap and washed her hands.

He felt a cramp in his side, realized he was still bent forward with one boot half off his foot.  He shook it off abruptly, as if it offended him, as if it were a bee or a horse fly.  “What’d Baizie tell you?”

Granny smiled as she moved a cloth over her hands.  “Baizie said a lot of things, most of them ugly.  But when she was done, I reckon all I heard was that you were in love.  Not that she ever used that word.”

“She’ll tell everyone.”

“Not after what I said back to her.”

He frowned, unable to read her.

“Aren’t you upset with me?”

“No.”

“Aren’t you disgusted? Ashamed?”

“I think maybe you are.”

He lowered his eyes to the floor.

“But you shouldn’t be,” she said. “I’ve known men and women just like you.  Plenty of them. Don’t despise your nature, boy. Just know it as best you can. Measure it for itself, not against the world.  Keep yourself safe, travel wise, but never hate yourself.”

He licked his lips. “He wants us to leave together. But I told him I couldn’t leave you alone. You took me and Daddy in when we didn’t have no place to go. You’re my only friend in the world. We need each other.”

“You told this boy that?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And what’d he say?”

“He cried. If his folks hear what Baizie’s got to say, they’ll kill him themselves. You know how Sunder is, Granny. I think he would.”

She nodded.

“I took you and your father in because you needed me, not because I needed you.  I love you, boy, of course I do.  But that was then. This is now.”

“Granny-“

“Find your young man and you two go find someplace else.”

He stared at her for a long while, hoping he’d never forget her face, the creases around her eyes, the silver cloud of hair her braids could never wrangle.  “Is it time?”

“Go out, boy. Go out.”

The Editing Commission

When she opens the door to let me in her apartment, the actress is dressed in her feeling bad costume.  The only time she wears this cow neck sweater, yoga pant combo is when she’s suffering from another bout of laryngitis.  She’s piled her blond hair into a messy, under the weather knot that is still somehow precious.  Deciding she seems moody, I mentally brace myself.

Padding ahead of me into the living room on perfectly pedicured feet, she says huskily, “You look cute today. I hope I can be helpful. My energist says I’m probably not contagious, but maybe keep your distance. Oh, look. Sofia forgot to take home her cake.”

She curls into her favorite chair as I spread out the script and my laptop on the cocktail table between us.  Her apartment is big for New York, very sunny and peppered with the usual bits of Buddhist kitsch.  Her maid has managed to keep a few plants alive in the window sills.  The place has just been cleaned and smells like sage, orange oil and window cleaner.

“Oh, do you want something to drink?” she asks.

“No, I’m okay.”

I’ve been editing her script for about two months, although editing is her word and not mine.  More honestly, I have been ghost-writing the thing for her.  We meet like this once a week and she gives me some fresh ideas to offset all the progress and I share with her my latest efforts.

I can feel her watching me as I make myself comfortable.  I know from past experience that she is very sensitive to other people’s moods, so to lighten things up, I glance up and make a sort of silly face.  She gives me back a half smile.

“Before we get started,” she says. “I want to talk about something from last week. Have you lost weight? No, it’s your shirt. Never mind.”

“Was that what you wanted to talk about?”

She laughs like its the funniest thing anyone ever said, then abruptly stops, putting a hand to her throat. “I need to remember to take better care of myself,” she says in a soft tone I’ve learned is her version of talking to herself.  “I’ve got to mother me, now.”

“What’s that?”

“Well, my energist says I mother too many other people and that’s why I’m sick.  I’m all out of whack…”

I read something about chakras on a train ride once.  I cannot resist saying, “I can see your blue chakra pulsing from over here.”

This really excites her: “That’s your throat, that’s why I keep getting laryngitis.  Or whatever the Eastern word is for that.”

I nod sympathetically.  She says, “But the long and short of it is, I need to be selfish for a while.  Look after me.”

“That really is important.”

“So back to what I wanted to talk about.”

“Shoot.”

She bites her lip and looks pained. “Can you not say that word? It has a lot of violent connotations for me.  As you might remember, my college roommate was killed.”

“That’s right. It was a car accident, wasn’t it, five years ago? I remember you told me about it once.”

“So, as you can imagine, I like to keep that kind of energy out of the apartment. Especially when it’s just been saged. And even more when I’m in a healing mode.”

“Right,” I say. “Of course.”

She gets up and moves into the kitchenette.  I shuffle through my notes as she puts a kettle on the stove and drops a teabag into an Italian teacup she bought at a fancy little shop on Bleecker.  She showed it to me the first day I came to the apartment.  Teacups and house stuff had been her obsession at that time.  “It’s my grandma stage, I guess,” she’d said with a little snort.

Leaning against the counter, she gives me a long look.  I adjust my glasses and match her gaze, careful to keep my face mild and pleasant, like the smell of posh hand soap.  She lets out a little growl of frustration. I’m starting to think she’s going to sack me.

“The thing is, I’ve been running those lines since last week, and I just don’t think Clara would say those things.”

“Which things?”

“About being molested,” she says. “I think she’d be too embarrassed.”

“Oh.”  I scroll backward through the script and pause when the scene she’s talking about comes up.  “But didn’t you say that if she talked about being molested, it would make her more sympathetic when she kills her husband?”

“Must you constantly hang me up with things I said in the past?” she asks.  She crosses the distance between us and folds her arms on her chest.  It is a very actressy thing to do, I cannot help but think.  “Something you need to understand about me is that I’m like water, okay?”

“I’m sorry. How’s that?”

She turns away, scraping a hand through her hair.  “A river is never the same from one day to another.”

“Oh. It isn’t? I didn’t know that.”

The kettle lets out a cry and she moves to fill her teacup.  I promise myself I will write down all the funny things I would like to say to her later. For the moment, as with every week, I would like to get out of here with my usual check.  Thinking fast, I say, “Did you have any ideas for something else? I mean, from a theatrical perspective, I think those lines were terrific.  I feel like the audience needs a moment like that with her.”

She returns to her chair, thoughtfully bobbing the tea bag up and down by the string.  When she settles, she stares up into the rafters, trying to glean some wisdom from the heavens, it would seem.

“I thought maybe she could talk about being afraid of heights or something.  Like maybe her grandfather once took her to the Eiffel Tower or something and she was afraid, but he didn’t know for some reason, so he kept ignoring her and making her go up another flight of stairs. And then another and another.”

I swallow a giggle, a nervous tick of mine.  “I see.”

“But I don’t want that to make the grandfather seem like a monster.”

“Right, because in act one she says the only person who ever treated her with any real kindness was her grandpap.”

“Right.”

“Perhaps we could make it that this was the onset of his Alzheimer’s and he didn’t know better.  That would make you have conflicted feelings, too, like a little bit of anger but also, logically you know he deserves your pity.”

She’s taking her first sip of tea as I say this and her eyes widen so much I think maybe she burned her mouth.  Instead, she sets the cup aside so quickly some of it spills, and she says, “That’s genius!  Brilliant!”

I start to make some little changes on my lap top.  This may not be as hard as I thought.  “Well, like here, where before we had, ‘Uncle Jake was shoving his fingers home, again and again, even though I kept screaming, “No, Uncle Jake, no!’  We can just replace ‘Uncle Jake’ with ‘Grandpap’ and ‘shoving his fingers home’ with ‘pulling me up the stairs’.  It totally works.”

She stares at me dreamily.  “That’s why you’re here.  That’s why the Universe sent you.”

I drop my gaze, blushing even though I know she’s full of shit.  Someone can’t tell you that you’re basically heaven-sent without it making you feel a little goofy pleasure.  I make myself busy on some other quick edits and pretend not to notice when she slides out of her chair and starts doing light yoga on the flokati rug.  She is deep in child’s pose when I find the first little stumbling block.

“Listen to this,” I venture.  “There’s that moment in act four, when you say that you never let a man touch you until you fell in love with Peter.  But see the equivalent now would be something like you never entered a highrise again. But you see, of course she lives in a penthouse apartment.”

She pops up suddenly, her face pink, her manner much more animated than one would have thought.   “What if we say she was afraid of heights until she met Peter.  Then, because he was an architect – for highrises – she made it her mission to overcome her phobia so she can go to ribbon cuttings or something…”

There is a silence after she trails off.  We’re both thinking it sounds thin.  She gives me a beseeching look then and something about her eyes and the fluffy madness of her ponytail makes me think of those cute dogs that rich people have.  The little lap dogs with bangs and bows. I never do know canine breeds.  Luckily, I become obsessed with remembering the name for that kind of dog before I start to laugh insanely.

Scratching my chin, I say, “Perhaps he designs a big bridge and she knows she’ll have to go to the christening of it or something, so she gets one of those Russian ex-KGB hypnotists to put her under and cure her.  This could all have happened years ago.”

“Is that a thing?” she asks with sudden interest. “Ex-KGB hypnotists?”

“I believe it is,” I say. “I mean, I think someone told me something about that once.”

“That’s fascinating. I could use someone like that. I’ve been meaning to overcome cracking my toe knuckles and to learn how to concentrate better.  Are you thirsty yet? Hey, did you go see that comic you talked about?”

I smile at her. “No, I did not.  But what do you think about that idea? We just knock out the fear of heights thing quickly so we don’t gum up the story.  After she talks about being dragged up the Eiffel Tower, she can say something like, ‘I had hypnosis years ago to overcome my fear of heights, but all the shrinks in the world can’t bring Grandpap back so I can tell him how sorry I am for being so mad at him.'”

She’s shaking her head, with that dreamy look again.  “You really are brilliant.  But find a way to slip in the Russian ex-KGB part. I think that really sexes up the whole thing.”

The sun is starting to slant about an hour later, when we decide to stop for the week.  She has exhausted the energy she sets aside for this project and I am out of quick ideas to bridge her mad ones.  The last part is always a little awkward.  She likes to chit chat in the hall until I am forced to remind her about my check.  Then she acts embarrassed and says, “You poor thing. I’m so sorry.”  Luckily, she is not a hugger, a rarity in her profession.

There are a lot of hateful things I think about her.  In my apartment, I have a little notebook where I write all the cutting things I’d like to tell her when she drives me mad with new changes.  On its ruled pages, I’ve written how I think she changes up her persona, switching gurus and grains and friends, just to avoid ever really getting a glimpse of herself.  I’ve jabbed at her talent, called her a fool.  I’ve doodled pictures of her accidentally farting while going into downward dog.  That one made me laugh until my stomach hurt a little bit.

Then a funny thing happens, when she turns to hand me the check.  She catches a glimpse of herself in the hall mirror and laughs little bit at how her hair has arranged itself.  “Jesus, I look like a Bichon Frise.”  Later, I will still probably laugh, but in the moment, I realize she already knows about herself all the mean things I think I know.  But, also, she knows other things about herself that I cannot imagine.  It gives her about as much dignity as any of us manage. For the moment, as I take the check, I think maybe I can cut her some slack.

Breakfast with Sharp

Sharp shows up at the diner looking anxious, as always, and a little sleepier than usual.  It’s miserably wet outside and as he peels himself free of his jacket, droplets of rain scatter over the Formica table.  I glance down at the bowl of sugar packets the waitress left and remind myself as I have for ten years that I no longer sweeten my coffee.

“You have the girls this weekend?” I ask.  “You look exhausted.”

“All week.”

He bumps the table as he gets into the booth and my coffee splashes out of the mug.  He automatically reaches for too many napkins but I already have it covered.

“Relax,” I say. “You seem wound up.”

“Oh, well.”  He scratches his head. “Maybe I am.”

I consider waiting until after we eat to get to the thing on my mind, but I’m anxious to know, so I ask, “Did you read my story?”

He looks at me a moment, his expression a study of blankness, then silently picks up the menu and mulls it over with all the concentration of a man taking a test.  I know what he’ll order in the end, and when the waitress comes and he says pancakes and an egg and some grits with sausage gravy, too, I say nothing.

Sharp is a little meaty and red-headed and freckled.  And he’s balding some on top, but he isn’t hipster enough or self-conscious enough to shave his whole head the way a lot of guys do nowadays.  He keeps it old-fashioned barber short.  When it’s combed flat it’s not so bad, but he’s that guy who scratches his head when he’s tired or nervous or excited or thinking.  He scratches his head almost all the time and he does it until the hair sticks up like koala ears.  And then he looks like the goofiest bastard you ever saw.

He notices my silence. “You think I should’ve got the omelet instead, don’t you?”

“I don’t care what you get, Sharp.”

He shrugs.  I notice that his t-shirt is all bunched around his shoulders from pulling off the jacket.  If he were one of my girl friends, I would reach out and fix it, but ever since junior high I’ve been paranoid that anything that physical and intimate will seem like a pass. I know my guy friends now are smart enough to know I’m just gay, not a sex-starved maniac, but it’s just a weird holdover from earlier times.  Instead I say drily, “Your shirts all fucked up.”

“Oh.” He makes my coffee splash out twice more as he tries to fix it.  This time I let him mop up the mess.  He looks peeved. “Who do they make these little fucking booths for anyway?”

I glance out the window.  Even in the crappy weather, the sidewalk has lots of people on it.  The rain can’t empty a street in New York.  The east villagers are moving faster than normal, but they still got things to do.  The weather has greyed all the bright tops and scarves and the assortment of hats, but the taxis only look more vibrant.  They are cartoon cheery; blocks of cheddar coasting through the rain.

“Can’t we talk about your story after we eat?” Sharp says.

I give him a look.  His eyes are scotch brown, easily his best feature, and they usually register a cocktail of worry, concern and impatience.  They are intelligent eyes that carry a weighty sadness even when they’re laughing.  His eyes could make a mother out of anyone.  When we first were friends, I fell in love with him because of those eyes.  Or I thought I loved him. Maybe I just fell in love with wanting to make them happier eyes, which I now know is entirely impossible.  I even suspect he’d be a little less brilliant if he weren’t quite so troubled.  Anyway, Sharp’s not suicidal or anything, just a keeper of gloom.  But he’s really a funny guy, too.

“What’s that?” he says, his brows gathering like thunderclouds.

“What?”

“I asked if we could go over your story later and you give me this long look like you want to fuck me or kill me or spit in my face.”

I laugh at him, but I can feel my face burn with a blush.  “You’re an idiot,” I say. “But if I had to pick one, I think I’d happily spit in your ugly face.”

He scowls and starts opening too many sugar packets, dumping the contents into his coffee.  He grimaces when he takes the first sip.  “Too sweet.”

“I saw that coming.”

We have this thing between us, me and Sharp.  It’s like we could almost be lovers – in different skins, of course – or we could so easily be enemies.  We’d be the kind of former friends who hide in grocery store aisles from each other and when someone brought up the other one to us, we’d go home and get drunk and maybe draw pictures on napkins of people being decapitated.  We’d wake up and not remember drawing it, but we’d remember that someone had said, “You see Sharp anymore?”  And our hangover would be colossal.  It’s good that me and Sharp are friends, because us being enemies would be like cancer.

“So?”

“Yeah, Sharp, we can go over it later. I mean, I’ve waited this long.  I can wait ten more minutes.”

He looks like he wants to argue, to defend himself for dodging the topic for three weeks, but then the waitress is back and putting the plates down.  I see that this time he finally spots the mole on her arm and as his mouth turns down, I look away and hide a smile behind my coffee mug.  She stands back a little ways and puts her hands on her hips.

“Anything else, whiles I’m here?”

“We’re good,” I say for both of us.

She looks at me like she disagrees and her eyes roam the table dubiously.  Pointing to Sharp’s mug, she says, “I’ll come back and top you off.”

“No,” he says. “Thanks.”

I watch her back as she moves off, noticing she forgot to iron one of her sleeves.  One of them is perfect with a crease and everything and the other one looks like she dragged the uniform right out of the laundry hamper.

“You grossed out?” I ask with a smidge of pleasure.

“No.”  He flashes those scotch brown eyes at me.

Sharp doesn’t cut his pancakes, he saws at them like he’s clearing land westward.  He doesn’t spoon up his grits, he shovels them like Fred Flintstone working the quarry.  I eat my omelet in silence.

“You hear anything from that actress?” he asks with his mouth full.  “She still want you to edit that script of hers?”

“That’s what I’ve been doing the last two weeks.”

He shrugs.  “She seems like an idiot.”

“She is,” I agree. “But my fridge is full for once.”

He looks a little interested, then grimaces into his plate.

“In any event, I like editing almost as much as writing so it’s good.  Or good enough.”

The infuriating thing about Sharp is that he’s so opaque at times.  I like to be able to read people.  It makes me feel certain about my world.  When Sharp just gives you a glance, it could be anything.  Some people look at you and you know they’re hurt or irritated or just looking at you to be sure it was you who said their name.  With Sharp, he might be noticing for the first time that your eyes are a little close set or even finally figuring out that you’re not as clever as he thought you were. Or he might be seeing you have a booger.  That bastard would not tell you’ve had a booger until you were leaving a party and then he’d say, “Yeah, I noticed it an hour ago but you were flirting with that guy you’re into and I didn’t want to embarrass you.” I mean, a lot of people would not be friends with someone like Sharp.  Friends tell you about boogers, open flies, toilet paper stuck to your shoe.

He pushes his plate aside with a sour expression on his face.  He finished everything he ordered and now his stomach hurts.  This is how it goes.  Folding his arms and tucking his fingers into the pits, he says, “The story isn’t so bad, but you got that thing about the gift horse wrong.”

“What do you mean?”

“You say something like, ‘Never look a gift horse in the mouth unless you want to get bitten. Or unless you want to see a tangle of soldiers…'”

I finish up for him. “‘..Huddled in its stomach, which could be either erotic or disgusting, but I’m betting on the latter.’  What’s wrong with that? I thought it was kind of clever.”

He shakes his head. “But the gift horse thing and the Trojan horse thing aren’t the same thing.  You don’t look a gift horse in the mouth because that’s like checking out its teeth, like taking a gift but then judging its worth.  It’s rude.”

I bite my lip and push away my plate.  Feeling queasy, I reach for my coffee, but then take a drink of my water instead.  The water at this place is always cloudy, but I pretend not to notice anymore.

Sharp says, “The Trojan horse thing is where the ‘beware of Greeks bearing gifts’ thing comes from.  So, you can’t use that part.”

“But that’s the setup and all the back and forth between Ant and Nan comes from that thing.”

He shrugs in a way I think is kind of hateful.  Later, I’m sure I’ll decide it wasn’t.

He says, “Look, you asked me to read it.”

“But I wanted your opinion on the dialogue and things like the characters, not to pick apart some geeky detail like that.”

“Your whole story is built on you not knowing your shit, dipshit,” he says.  Irritated with me, his voice drops down into his chest.  When I used to be sort of in love with him, I found that deep tone arousing.  Even now it makes me feel a little funny.

“Well, maybe if I change that part and make it about something else…”

He is shaking his head, looking bored now and glancing over my shoulder.  In the long silence I land back into the moment, hearing again the murmur of other people talking, the clatter of knives and forks at work, the vague discharge of a pop song from the old jukebox in the front.  He leans forward, dropping his elbows on the table.  Instinctively, I lean in, too.

“The part about how they feel about each other is good,” he says.  “Except you don’t really let anyone know how Ant feels.  Seems a little slanted.”

“But that would make it like Nan knows how he feels.”

He rakes his hands through his hair and there it is, that stupid koala bear head.  This time I reach out and knock the ears down.  He stares at me in astonishment.

I try to pick up the thread again. “Ant is just one of those mysteries that Nan can’t figure out. I mean, that’s how some people are.  They never get together, they never have a happy ending.  You’re supposed to walk away from the story feeling really frustrated about all of that shit in life.”

He sits back, still looking a little shocked.  Folding his arms again, the scotch eyes are almost angry.  Anyway, they’re very dark now.  Coca-Cola dark.  “Well, if leaving them frustrated is what you wanted, then you nailed it.”

The Algebra Novel

Every morning in seventh grade math class, I opened my blue Trapper Keeper and sat the tip of my pencil to a fresh sheet of paper.  When the teacher began the class, I mentally checked out, returning to the novel I was writing in my head.

It was good stuff, too, all about two southern bell sisters trying to keep the plantation from falling apart.  These poor girls had a lot on their plate.  Between dodging deserters and remaking old ball gowns, it was pretty amazing they still had time to fall in love with sturdy bucks like tight-lipped, sun-bronzed Rafe Hyatt.  And don’t get me started on their older, wicked lady neighbor, the raven-haired Rebecca de Chastaine.  Pretending to be their friend even as she plotted to ensnare their lovers, make no mistake, she was nothing but trouble. With this heady stuff to tend to between 9:55 and 10:55 each school day, it is no wonder I had to repeat math in summer school that year.

Writing this novel in math class was the highlight of my day and what helped me not to miss quite as much school that year.  Never mind the occasional humiliation of being called on by our teacher, Mr. Shaylock, and having no clue where we were in class.  With his short sleeve button ups and messy 70s weatherman hair, he was a gentle nerd who barely maintained his class, so perhaps he didn’t mind the plump daydreamer doodling Marie Antoinette wigs on the margins of his notebook.  At least I wasn’t one of the trouble-makers, pinching girls’ asses through the cutouts in the orange plastic chairs. That man put up with a lot, but I doubt he went home and poured himself a Scotch on my account.

I was a committed craftsman back then, never missing a date on my inkless writing.  I got good at winding up a chapter an hour and I got excited on the bus each morning, deciding where I’d begin again.  I also did the hard research, checking out books on historic costume from the library and faithfully teaching myself to draw them.  I could tell the era of a redingote at a glance, and was not above sniffing in disapproval when a movie of the week placed a ball gown on Jane Seymour when clearly she would have worn a modest day dress.  Returning those much loved volumes of renderings to the library again and again that year, I’m sure the one clearly homosexual volunteer behind the desk was smirking knowingly under his handlebar mustache.  Yet all my work could not save me from my report cards. I blame it on the Reagan era that I wasn’t tested on the anatomy of pantaloons instead of converting fractions.  The arts must always suffer.

At that time my biggest writing influences were Gone With the Wind and my sister’s library of smutty historic novels.  I always saw the past through a misty red veil, never stopping to think about all the pots of shit-water under the beds.  Instead, I was taken with the clothes, see above, and by the time I got to middle-school I liked the sex scenes, too.  The women who wrote novels such as ‘Destiny’s Seduction’ or ‘Island Rapture’ were giants in their field. As with all great literature, I was taken with the power of even their simplest phrases.  Describe our hero’s thighs as both hot and strong and I was right there with him in the crashing waves, deflowered but defiant as over his gleaming shoulders my ancestral mansion was burned by pirates.  Oh, the places you will go in a really fine work of fiction.

By mid-year I was bold enough to tinker with the sexual foibles of my own characters.  I knew before I knew that I was not a fit for the hetero world of those novels. Neither a swarthy English hunk raised by Arabs nor a voluptuous preacher’s daughter sold into sex slavery on the high seas, I hewed my burgeoning sexuality to the wicked, older lady neighbor.  With her as my proxy, I could place myself in that world – and experience the catty thrill of being the only woman in the county still rich enough to nail my dress at the Christmas ball.  Dove grey silk with cherry red piping – don’t get me started.

Of course, I abhor violence and any form of chicanery, but through this towering beauty, Rebecca de Chastaine, I wielded a terrible power.  When we set our cap for the rugged Yankee captain the McClure sisters were hiding in their smoke house, it took only a snap of her fingers to have him brought to us.  Of course, the problem was that once she’d tied him down and laid out her plans for him in a flowery monologue, it was me who had to stand up with a boner when the bell rang.  Thank heaven for that Trapper Keeper.