Still Enjoying the Writing…and Reading…Life

Following up on my last post (I know…it was May! – but when I write, I tend to work on my fiction rather than this blog, which I know violates one of the the sacred purposes of a blog…its frequency, but fuck it – it’s MY blog)…whew…I continue to enjoy the luxury of writing every day, of sitting at my computer and hammering out 1,000 quality words, adding to the page count of my current project: The Dreams of Teddy Schreck.

And the complimentary bonus of retirement is the time allotted for reading. I read consistently on the commuter train rides to and from work, but now I can devote hours to the backlog of books on my Kindle, as well as the print books waiting to be consumed. Something I rarely did when I was working full-time at my office job was review the books I read. Not so now. I try to post a review of every book I finish, either on Amazon or on Goodreads. The only caveat is if I truly loathed a book…then I might skip the review. However, that rarely happens these days. I once adhered to an ethic that I would fight through even the worst book, not wanting to give up on it and set it aside mid-stream. These days if a novel doesn’t grip me within the first ten pages, I  abandon it and move on to something else. That’s a harsh judgement, I know, but I’ve decided I don’t have time to waste on poor writing.

As a result, the number of books I read in a given period of time…let’s say a week…has increased pleasurably. That’s a good thing…

If you haven’t joined Goodreads, I encourage you to stop by the website and check it out. It’s a fine place to mine for recommendations and reviews.

And remember…”What’s new, John?” Another 1,000 or so words toward the conclusion of one project and the launch of another.

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Hey John, What’s New?

A former colleague from my “working” days, aka pre-fulltime retirement writing life, asked me the customary question: “What’s new?”

The answer to that question seemed simpler when I worked with him in our 9 to 5 jobs. There was always something at the office we could latch onto to discuss to death. Writing, however, complicates the answer now. “I wrote 1,000 really good words today!” I’d like to brag. Or even: “I struggled to eek out 500 average words that I’ll have to submit to a substantial rewrite tomorrow.” If the questioner has no writing background, her/his reaction soon becomes apparent through a puzzled facial expression. “Are you serious?”

I think friends and colleagues expect my days to burst with exciting news, which I spin into rich, satisfying anecdotes that make the listener envious of my circumstances. Free time from dawn to dusk…no more working. Sorry to spoil their fantasies, but I work harder now than when we shared sterile office space. I became quite adept at leaving work at the office, but I seem never to cease writing. The mind never pauses. Thoughts tumble like wet socks in a dryer…thump, thump thump. I have a digital recorder handy most of the day to record random notes about what I’m writing, about project I plan to write, and about what I aspire to write. The voice recording app on my phone gets more work than any other.

Work anxiety rarely kept me awake at night before I retired. I relegated all the BS to that 9 to 5 cubbyhole, sloughed it like a heavy coat when I came home each night. As I mentioned in a blog entry many months ago, some nights my monkey-brain engages, shrieking and careening around its cage, pushing sleep into a distant corner. I lay for half an hour or so and then surrender, rise and begin to write. Those hours don’t produce always the most polished prose…but they do produce! Writing is a full-time endeavor…that’s the abbreviated version. It seems as though my perspective these days totally encompasses how my environment affects my writing, and vice versa.

So…the question. I could answer with a description of what I wrote that day, or the previous day, but I’m reluctant to discuss any work in progress. I’m not alone in that aversion…it’s a common enough trait in many writers. Instead, I plead the writer’s fifth amendment right not to self-incriminate. My life to the outside world is boring. Wake, write, read, sleep. The magic there lies outside the beginning and the end…it’s the juicy middle! Writing and reading. The rewards gleaned from those two simple words don’t defy description; I just prefer to guard them jealously.

So the next time you ask me what I’ve been up to, what’s new with me…accept with grace my wry smile and gentle head wag. You’ll never know.

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Harmony House – My New Novel Will be Published Soon

Harmony House - My New Novel Will be Published Soon

In Harmony House, Dan Boyle attempts to adapt to his new life as a recent widower. His serial infidelities and alienation from his wife preceding her death haunt him, and as much as he wants to insulate himself from family, friends and neighbors, “untethering” from relationships proves difficult. Shedding obligations is easier wished than done.

As he examines his behavior during his marriage and following his wife’s diagnosis and death, Dan accepts that he has failed to live up to his own standards, much less the standards of others. He is torn between admitting his shortcomings and ignoring them. Will he change and live his life as a decent man? Or will he persist in placing his own hedonistic impulses before the needs of others?

Is redemption what he needs? Is it what he seeks? Or is it superfluous? A chain that tethers him to a life he wants to forget.

Madonna – Novel in Progress Excerpt

This is draft of the first chapter of a novel in progress…Madonna. I hope you enjoy the read.

 

Chapter One

 The moisture in the heated air condensed on the glass door and a sheet of ice glazed the pane, distorting the moving images of cars and pedestrians on the street outside. The door cracked open and a soiled swatch of canvas bag the color of worn plaster snagged in the yawning frame. Then the door gaped and her silhouette, like a fireplug, filled the rectangle of daylight. Mary Cottle waddled along the aisle like a child avoiding cracks in the sidewalk. She pivoted at the center of the bar and rumbled onto a stool, slinging her newspaper carrier’s bag onto the clouded, black Formica surface. Then she sighed.

She squinted across the bar into the large mirror and smiled, a crevice in a hemisphere of makeup so thick it appeared to have been applied by a brick mason. She tugged the stocking cap from her head and her shoulder-length hair, the lackluster shade of highway snow, tumbled down her neck, settling on the collar of her coat. Elbows braced on the bar, ungloved fingers ruffling through her bag for cigarettes, Mary pouted, her mouth a compressed smear of scarlet lipstick. She poked a Marlboro in the center of it all and torched it with a wooden kitchen match. Smoke swelled like cumulus as she exhaled, a breathy expression of relief. She immediately stamped out the cigarette on her heel like a worrisome thought and wiped her runny nose with her coat sleeve. Her eyes watered, the gray irises glazed like the glass door, the tissue surrounding her lids red as she tilted back her head, opened her mouth, shut her eyes and waved a hand before her face. She sneezed. Her head shot forward and her hair shook about her like a cowl.

Mary contemplated the empty bar. “Joseph,” she called in a squawk, pounding the toe of a drippy boot against the painted front of the plywood bar.Image

“Joseph!” she repeated anxiously.

A voice sounded from an open door on the rear of the long, narrow room. Mary wisped her hair back away from her face, snaking her fingers, their skin taut and cracked from the cold, through the gnarled strands like a rake through straw.

“Joseph!” she called again. “I need some tissues. Where are the tissues?”

“In a minute,” the voice snapped.

Joseph paced into the room, wiping his hands on his slacks, then skimming them across his head, smoothing his sandy hair. He strode behind the bar and reached for a box of tissues, which he dropped unceremoniously before Mary.

“Catching a cold, Mary?” he asked.

Mary clutched a wad of tissues to her nose and hacked into them.

Joseph lifted a glass from the stacks behind him and centered it on the bar before her. “You’re early this morning, what’s up?”

“Time’s money, buddy-boy,” she said.

Joseph laughed and stroked his chin, still chapped by the bitter wind following this morning’s shave. The cords of muscle in his neck disappeared beneath the turtleneck of his wool sweater as he chuckled.

“The early bird catches the worm,” Mary insisted.

Joseph raised the bottle of Scotch and poured two jiggers into the glass. Mary rummaged through her purse in search of coins, but Joseph, as every morning, waved off her efforts and muttered some unintelligible words for this repeated moment, his comments long since dissolved into incoherent prattle.

“You’re a dirty bird, Joseph. A truly dirty bird.” Mary toasted him by tipping her glass a quarter inch in his direction and then gulped down a swallow, shivering as though ambushed by a chilly draft. She gulped down another and another until the tumbler bore only a filmy amber trace of the liquor.

That’s right, it’s Thursday,” Joseph said, watching Mary rest the glass easily on the bar top. “Duck day, right?”

Mary nodded, shifting her weight on the stool, bulky marionette severed from its strings. Her blue cloth coat shrouded all but the stool’s wooden legs. She lightly touched the rim of her glass with a fingertip.

Joseph poured another measure into her glass, less than the first, and then set the bottle back in the chrome rack behind the lip of the bar. Mary sipped the Scotch this time, closing her eyes and savoring its warmth as though her mouth was a furnace radiating heat throughout her body.

“So,” Joseph said. “How about a reading this morning, huh?”

“Feeling lucky today, buddy boy”

“Luckier than this fool who tried to rob a grocery in Montana.” Joseph stabbed a finger onto  the newspaper spread before him on the bar.

“Another of your stories,” Mary groaned.

“I thought you enjoyed them, Mary,” Joseph chided.

“How bizarre is this one?”

“Tame compared to some of the others.”

“No two-headed Brazilian babies? No boy who shot chunks of metal into his sister’s heart with a lawn mower?”

“You’re blessed with a very fine memory, Mary.”

“Some things have a way of sticking with you, buddy boy,” she said, then sipped from her Scotch. “Where’s the scrapbook?”

Joseph pointed below the mirror behind him. “In the cabinet.” He swung open a low door and removed a vinyl-covered binder, placing it on the bar.

“So what’s this about a robbery in Montana?” Mary asked.

Joseph lifted the newspaper and angled it for better light. “Let’s see. It’s AP out of Billings and I’m quoting here. ‘A man walked into a small grocery store and told the cashier to give him all the money in the register. The woman opened the drawer then stood aside as the man motioned toward her with what he pretended was a gun in his coat pocket. She waited until he turned his back to her and reached into the cash drawer, then she slammed it  on his hand and leaned against him, pinning him against the register. The woman did believe he had a gun, proved to be factual when he removed his free hand from his pocket and grabbed for his register hand. The two-hundred-pound woman blocked the man’s attempts to hit her and when he tried to gouge her eyes, she twisted her head, grabbed his fingers and bit them.”

Mary laughed.

“Wait, there’s more,” Joseph chuckled. “The man’s screams attracted  an off-duty sheriff’s deputy who was shopping with his wife. He arrested the poor man, who was taken to a hospital where two fingers of his right hand were amputated. Now he’s filing charges against the grocery store clerk, who of course, is counter-suing.”

“Oh, Joseph,” Mary said, trying to control her laughter and swiping at here watery eyes with a tissue.

“I think that warrants entry into the scrapbook, don’t you?”

Mary nodded as Joseph retrieved a pair of scissors from the cabinet behind the bar and snipped the article from the paper. He arranged it on a blank page and fastened it with cellophane tape, then penned in the date and the name of the newspaper.

“How many entries have you made in this one?” Mary asked, fingering the edge of the book.

“O, I don’t know,” Joseph said. “I haven’t numbered the pages. Perhaps I should.”

“I don’t know why you collect all these weird stories,” Mary said, shivering involuntarily.

“They’re priceless, Mary. They show us at our best.”

“Our best,” Mary exclaimed. “How can you say that? This is a catalog of horrors.” She lifted a corner of the scrapbook and allowed it to fall noisily back to the bar top.

“At times,” Joseph conceded. “But at times not.”

“What’s so un-horrible about a jerk losing two fingers?

“That’s not the point, Mary. It’s the woman’s spirit that’s important, that she wouldn’t let herself be victimized. Because we’re all victims in one way or another. She decided she wouldn’t be. That’s great…don’t you agree?”

Mary gulped the rest of her Scotch and set the glass before Joseph. “You’re an odd bird, Joseph. A truly odd bird.”

“No more odd than the rest of us,” he said, lifting the glass and then submerging it in the steaming sink of sudsy water. He rinsed it in the twin sink brimming with clear water and then lifted it to the light from the fluorescent fixture above the bar…inspecting it. He set it down to dry on a mat of rubber ribbing.

“So, how about that reading? Joseph asked.

“Okay, buddy boy,” Mary said. “You asked for it. She raised the flap of her bag and reached inside. She withdrew her hand slowly and Joseph caught sight of the familiar walnut base, the delicately carved pedestal legs. As Mary rested the sphere on the bar top, Joseph gazed once more at the crystal, slightly larger than a tennis ball.

“Give me a clean bar rag, will you?” Mary asked without looking at Joseph. Her eyes remained riveted upon the crystal orb.

Joseph handed her a white towel and Mary removed the ball from its base, swaddling it in the cloth, polishing it much as Joseph had polished the bar glass. Carefully cradling it in the towel, Mary lifted the base and upended it over the crystal, than tenderly overturned both of them onto the bar top. The crystal gleamed, free of fingerprints. She laid the towel off to the side and Joseph mechanically retrieved it, draping it over a rung beside the sinks.

“Get the light ready, buddy boy,” Mary whispered.

Joseph reached into his pocket and removed a disposable cigarette lighter, flicked the sparking wheel and watched as the butane flame leapt into the air.

“Now hold it behind the ball,” Mary directed him.

Joseph moved the flame until it wavered behind the crystal and Mary bent forward, gazing through the ball at the concentrated light. A crescent-shaped flaw in the center of the ball refracted the light in a prismatic arc and Mary wagged her head slowly, back and forth before the crystal, as colors from scarlet to violet and deep navy blue flared across her face within inches of the crystal, the flashes of color consuming her periphery.

“I see change, Joseph,” she murmured in a  trenchant whisper. “So much blue and orange, important changes. How is your life at home?”

Joseph shrugged. “Same as anybody’s, I imagine.”

“Any problems?” Mary asked, sitting up and straightening her back.

Joseph released the lever which fed gas to the flame and then placed the instrument on the bar top. “No more than anybody else’s, I guess.”

“Be careful, buddy boy. Be considerate of other’s feelings and don’t,” Mary aimed an index finger at him, “don’t criticize without thinking, unless you’re prepared to collect some grief about it.”

“Are you sure these changes are meant for me?” Joseph asked.

“Who else could they be for?”

“Hmm…maybe you, Mary. Maybe you’re reading your own fortune this morning,” Joseph teased the old woman.

“You’re going to collect some of that grief I mentioned pretty soon if you’re not careful, buddy boy.”

“Speaking of collecting, what are you hunting today?” he asked.

“Oh, something will develop,” Mary said, replacing the crystal in her bag. “Something always develops.”

“I would have thought you’ve scoured this village ten times by now.”

“Something always turns up that you haven’t considered before,” Mary said. “After all, time makes antiques.”

“I think you generate more antiques than time, Mary,” Joseph joked. “I’ve been down to Metzger’s, and he says you’re responsible for half his inventory.”

“Karl’s a dear, kind man, buddy boy. But he’s by no means my only buyer,” she huffed. Clambering down from the stool and bundling herself in her coat and hat, Mary slipped the sling of her bag over her shoulder and waddled toward the door.

“See you this afternoon?” Joseph called after her.

Mary nodded once, more a sharp snap of her head, as she leaned against the door handle.

 

Exhaust hazed the already clouded sky, from buses, trucks and cars, as well as from the storm sewers and manhole covers Mary passed as she threaded her way between the old and new structures. For years two civic factions fought a tug-of-war, one retreating in its efforts to preserve architectural landmarks, the other razing and erecting boxes of glass, chrome and concrete. The village gave the impression of recovering from an earthquake. Mary paused before the monochromatic brick walls of the new municipal building, the herringbone pattern of its brick courtyard visible beneath a veneer of salted ice, the trapezium front of the building darkened by its northern exposure. Across the street rested the eighty-five-year-old Leyton Building. Constructed flush to the sidewalk, mere feet from the curb, the structure’s face framed massive bronze doors set below a round horseshoe arch. Along the circumference of the second-story roofline ran gothic ball-flower molding. The limestone walls, dulled by time and exposure, appeared a cream color, and in the stucco frieze above the arched doorway, a trio of playful cherubs flanked by cornucopia bore stains of pigeon droppings. Mary watched her breath escape in a steamy swell, attempting to avoid the sensation of loss she experienced whenever she viewed new structures like the offices behind her. While others detected beauty in the linear simplicity of the building’s design, Mary discovered a depressing sexlessness, an absence of passion and vivacity. Her habit of bestowing gender upon both animate and inanimate objects minimized the depersonalizing frightfulness of day-to-day living, bringing with it a sense of order, however artificially imposed. The Leyton promised protection to passersby like a stately grandfather, casting a caring and kindly paternal shadow, while its cross street counterpart neutrally confronted pedestrians with uncluttered brick planes and smoked glass panes, recessed like hollow eye sockets. Far from deriving any sense of comfort from the building, Mary felt threatened by its presence among the older and more venerable edifices. A recession had temporarily saved the Leyton and her contemporaries from the wrecking ball. Leaving the village frozen in mid-facelift, the two vying factions stonewalled on their efforts to progress or preserve. The result was a downtown district resembling a chessboard upon which the forces of the old and the forces of the new in their hopscotching for supremacy had maneuvered one another into a stalemate.

Mary bunched her buttonless coat more tightly around her body, speculating about the toll of the ambiance levied upon people who labored in the modern structure. Village employees, she could only imagine, must manifest the numbing sterility of their offices, perhaps in a boredom so streamlined as to render each man and woman insensate through the day’s routine. While it seemed hackneyed to explain away the Leyton as a building with character, had Mary a choice as to which location she would prefer as a working environment, she would elect to ensconce herself with the consoling confines of the Leyton. She reminded herself as she slowly started east along the sidewalk, that her work, such as it was, rarely took her indoors. Securing her carrier’s bag over her shoulder, she wove among the icy patches toward the warehouses and the river beyond.

 

Turning south into the cobblestone alley running behind the row of shops, taverns and restaurants fronting the riverwalk, Mary paused to listen to a distant siren echoing through the narrow roadway. A pair of rusty rails, unused and crusted with snow, bisected the paving bricks and disappeared from her view over a slight rise a hundred yards distant. On the right stood a row of abandoned warehouses, their gray windows shattered, and former business names painted on the walls flaking to the ground. Mary still remembered some of the companies, though the signs were now illegible. Berelli Brothers Coffee. Merchandising. The men for whom they were named long dead, these buildings, their monuments, slowly decaying.

On the left the service and delivery entrances to the businesses on the riverwalk, themselves little more than storefronts and warehouses salvaged through the enterprising efforts of self-serving boaters who loathed docking their craft in view of dilapidated buildings. The riverwalk now constituted the village’s most fashionable area, but the money had run dry and the improvements remained cosmetic, skin-deep, a glittering varnish which only served to disguise the face of the district. Mindful of the dangers inherent in exploring early morning alleys, Mary picked her way along the pavement, poking her head into trash bins and doorways, alert for anything remotely collectible.

 

The jangling bell signaled her entrance and Mary rubbed her fingers together, the ache spreading through them, lodging itself familiarly inside her joints. Her carrier’s bag, as she waddled down the corridor, clinked with a sound that reminded her of a busboy hauling a gray plastic tub of dishes. The sound made her hungry and she realized she had not eaten for hours. At times these moments of realization seemed more like revelations, and as she contrasted her present ambivalence to food with her youthful cravings for anything to eat, Mary noted not for the first time, how patience seemed to be the single lesson of old age learned through imposition.

Halting in the center of the narrow aisle, she considered the disarray surrounding her. Directly above her head, suspended from nails pounded into the thick wooden beams, half a dozen bent wood, cane-bottomed chairs, their scarred legs aimed at the tiled floor. To her right a shelf of tarnished door keys laid above a bin of back issues of Life, National Geographic and Playboy. On the left stood a rack of vintage coats and jackets, mostly military, some with rank and unit insignias still sewn on the sleeves. Visible through the gaps between the coats was a glass case housing clear and aqua-colored electrical insulators. Metzger once told Mary the glass and ceramic components were purchased by young people for use as candle holders, although he said they sold many as paper weights and doorstops. Others merely placed them upon mantles as decorative accessories. The perfect product, Metzger added…an irresistible item with no practical use, which can never malfunction and which helped foster the image that his shop, far from being a repository of rummaged odds and ends, dealt in bona fide antiques. Mary chuckled at the memory, making her way farther down the aisle in the high-ceilinged space, past the leaning dressers with jammed drawers and the cardboard boxes of rickety picture frames; the tiers of amputee dolls heaped upon one another; wooden and brass coat trees adorned with dusty women’s hats; and to either side intersecting aisles lined with countertops upon which rested the recycled refuse of Mary’s village and its neighbors.

Karl Metzger appeared from behind a rug covering a doorway to a rear room, a steaming mug of soup in his hand. He looked as old as history and equally as frail. An oversized gray cardigan engulfed his body and he wore  blue and red plaid scarf wound loosely around his neck. He shuffled toward Mary in a pair of fleece-lined slippers so worn the leather shone like polished wood. He had the demeanor of a man accustomed to wearing glasses, squinty eyes placed closed together in a wide expanse of liver-spotted face.

“Ah, Mary,” he called. “Good to see you. Good. Good.” Mary coughed to clear her throat and then clapped her hands together, trying to stimulate greater circulation into her fingers. The aggravating ache lingered.

“What’s for lunch, Karl? My hunger is a demon and I’m counting on you to exorcise it for me.”

“Tomato, Mary, and there’s always enough for two.” He indicated the rear of the shop. “Come into the office.”

Mary passed into the rear room as Karl held the rug back for her. In contrast to the chaos of the showroom, Karl’s office seemed bare, sparsely furnished with: a blond oak library table against one wall, upon which set a two-burner hot plate and a pot of simmering soup; three wooden office chairs, all unmatched; a metal, four-drawer file cabinet; and a dying asparagus fern in a clay pot draping its brown tendrils down either side. In the corner beside the sink set a cot with olive drab blankets and no pillows. The atmosphere of the room was decidedly Spartan, more so, Mary thought, for the gauntlet of clutter one had to run to reach it.

Karl scraped a chair up to the table. “Sit, Mary. Sit,” he urged her.

Mary gently swung her bag to the floor, the sound of clinking causing Karl to raise one eyebrow in a questioning smirk.

“What have you today for me, Mary” he asked, ladling soup into another mug for her.

Mary lowered herself to the chair, tugged her hat from her head and shook loose her hair. “Doorknobs,” she said.

Karl offered her the mug; she grasped it with both hands, the warmth radiating through her fingers in a soothing wave. She sipped tentatively.

“You know the old Burlington Building?” she asked.

“They’re going to demolish it soon,” Karl said.

“Next spring. Anyway, I got inside this morning and poked around a bit.” Mary sipped again from the mug of soup. “That’s a large building, Karl, but I got lucky right away. On the third floor, in a closet off a bathroom, there was a box of glass doorknobs.” Mary set her mug on the table, leaned over and plunged her hand into her bag. She extracted a glass doorknob, which she had earlier shined with her scarf. Handing it to Karl, she removed another, and still another from her bag, until seventeen polished glass doorknobs lay grouped upon the table.

“Hmm,” Karl muttered as he fingered a doorknob, holding it to the diffused light from the glazed window at the rear of the room. “Very nice, Mary. Very nice indeed. But they’re not glass…they’re crystal!” he slipped off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. “A wonderful find. I’ll have no trouble selling them and I’ll give you a fine price for them.”

“Great. Can you throw in a pair of winter gloves, too?”

“You’re a dear friend, Mary. But don’t let it get around that you won the better of me.”

“You’re a shrewd old bird, Karl. A shrewd old bird,” Mary said. “Would you like a reading today?”

“No, Mary. No,” Karl said, fluttering his hands before him. “Life holds no surprises for me.” He paused for a moment, and then smiled broadly. “And if it does, I’m not so sure I want to know about them ahead of time.”

 

As gusting plumes of her breath dissipated in the heated air of the bar room, Mary marched forward and allowed the icy door to swing shut behind her. Joseph stood behind the bar, his attention focused on the television mounted on a platform suspended from the ceiling at one end of the room. Three men sat at a table near the pinball machines, the colorful lights refracted through the sweat on their pitcher of beer. A young man and woman longingly eyed one another over glasses of white wine in a booth across from the bar. Mary seated herself on a stool and then grinned as Joseph centered the box of tissues before her.

“The usual?” he asked.

Mary nodded as she clutched a handful of tissues from the box, daubed at her runny nose, and then sneezed into them so loudly that the three men at the table momentarily halted their conversation, turning their heads toward Mary. They then resumed talking with low-voiced snickering.

Joseph set a glass of Scotch in front of Mary, who rooted in her bag and removed a tattered coin purse, which she opened to reveal a folded sheaf of bills. Mary peeled off a five-dollar bill and laid it on the bar.

“Good day, Mary?” Joseph said as he ferried the bill to the register and secured it in the cash drawer.

Mary gulped a swallow of Scotch and nodded as she replaced her glass on the bar. “Very good, buddy boy, Very good.”

Excerpt of Novel in Progress – Harmony House, Part 2

Across the quiet park, the Eilers’ flawless Victorian rests on a modest rise, taller than his home. Peeking between the tree limbs, through the sheer curtains shielding the windows in the second floor bedroom, Dan observes silhouettes. He hunches forward, supporting his forearms on his knees and dangling a fresh beer bottle between his thighs; condensation drips from the sweating brown glass to the dusty hardwood floor. Scuffing his sock on the insignificant puddle, he mops it up, the icy liquid on the bottom of his foot inciting a tremor up his leg. Despite the fact that the shadows are indistinct shapes, Dan experiences a voyeuristic thrill imagining Iris Eilers undressing behind the drapes. He tips back his head and draws a long swallow from the beer, gulping the now tasteless liquid. Dan drinks for effect, but what effect does he intend? Why should Dan not speak his mind with impunity? Why should he not disregard the consequences of his words? Why not simply be truthful? Perhaps, Dan reflects, as pedestrian as it might seem, Marcie’s death accentuated his ability to deliberate clearly, to focus more single-mindedly than when she was alive. His impatience certainly intensified; he craves austere talk and consequential actions. But Dan also realizes that he needs to strip this evening’s behavior of its bitterness and hostility; truth need not injure.

Angling his gaze to the left, Dan follows the headlight beams of a car turning the corner, illuminating Peggy’s house; the porch and the windows now stand dark, although it is only a little past eleven o’clock on a Friday night. No doubt Gary Snell is drunk.  Everything Gary ever says, Dan feels, surfaces as an expression of “Look at me! Look at me!” He leans back and cradles his head in the sofa cushions, bringing the bottle to his lips and staring again across Iske Park to the lighted bedroom windows, wondering if Grayson lives as self-indulgently as Gary seems to live, and if Iris spends as much time attending to her husband’s impulses as Peggy seems to do. Dan suspects that he is the sort of person who needs people less than they need him; an assessment with which Marcie many times agreed. Life for Dan, she had complained, was something to be accomplished alone.

When considering what should be included in Marcie’s obituary, Dan balked at narrowing the topics; it was like trying to skip from the crest of one ocean wave to another: accentuating the unadorned highlights of her life and not delving deeper into any one of them was intolerable. He found it an agonizing task and was displeased with the final product. In her final days of illness, Marcie ceaselessly complained about everything…her pain, the temperature in the room, her pain, the stiffness of the bed sheets, and her pain…until it drove him mad.  Dan resented her for it, although he declared to several mourners at the funeral that he would give anything for just one more day of being able to hear her complain.

Dan recognizes the rumbling in the floor before he hears the train on the tracks. The windows clatter again in their wooden frames and the cadence of the train cars, clapping in precise regularity, establishes a rhythm which he accompanies with an arpeggio of tapping fingertips on the sofa arm. Living near the train tracks for so many years, he usually ignores or fails to register the clamor of the trains. But within the imperfect silence of his empty house, the trains roar with distorted significance. The bright lights in the Eilers’ bedroom go out, but a faint light flickers in irregular intervals, and he assumes they were watching television, most probably in bed.

“Enjoy yourselves,” Dan mutters, raising his beer bottle in a mocking toast to his neighbors, as the hypnotizing reverberation of the train dissipates.

“Enjoy what?” Someone behind him asks. Terrified, Dan leaps off the sofa, spilling beer as the bottle slips from his hand, his neck twisting in surprise at the sound of the voice. Peggy leans in the doorway to the kitchen, grinning in the diffused light from the street.

“Jesus, Peggy,” Dan breathes. “You scared the shit out of me!”

Peggy turns back into the kitchen and emerges with a dish towel, which she tosses. Dan catches it and kneels to the floor, righting his half empty beer bottle and soaking up the spilled brew.

“My heart’s pounding like a jackhammer,” he says, striding past Peggy into the kitchen with the wet towel. “How did you get in?”

“Everyone knows your side door is always unlocked, Dan,” she says, walking toward his front windows. “Who were you talking to?”

In the kitchen, Dan rinses the dish towel in cold tap water, diluting the concentrated odor of beer. “You’re the last person I thought I’d see tonight,” he calls to her, wringing out the cloth and draping it over the front edge of the farmers sink. He peers into the living room, where Peggy stares out the window at the park. “Do you want a beer?”

Peggy nods her head without looking at him. “Yeah, why not.”

Dan carries two bottles from the refrigerator to the living room window, twisting the cap from one and handing it to Peggy. “You still haven’t told me why you’re here, Peggy.”

She glares at him, tips her beer bottle, drinks a protracted, unhurried swallow, and then gazes out the window again. “I’m not sure why I’m here.”

This close to her, in the glow from the streetlamps, Dan distinguishes speckles of color in Peggy’s eyes; her brown irises contain ruby traces that glinted when she blinks. How ironic that Marcie assumed he had for years examined Peggy so carefully, and yet only now does he notice the intricacy of her eye color, or the minuscule, etched lines at the corners of her mouth. He wonders if knowing more about her character will increase her beauty.

“Why were you such a bastard tonight?” Peggy asks, cradling the beer bottle in the valley of her sweater, between her breasts.

Dan removes the cap from his own beer and flips it onto the coffee table, where it skids across the smudged glass and clatters to the floor. “No excuse,” he admits. “And I don’t want to fight with you, Peggy.”

“You seemed to want to fight with everyone else tonight.” Peggy walks to the sofa and lowers herself, stretching out her legs and crossing her ankles.

“I suppose I deserve that,” he says, sitting across from her on the adjoining wing of the sectional. “I’m sorry about earlier. It seemed easy to be a total shit tonight.”

Peggy tucks her hair behind her ears. “It upset me when you asked if I was happy.” Peggy grunts, and then guzzles more beer. “I wasn’t sure if you’d taken a lucky shot in the dark or had noticed something…especially after you mentioned Marcie being jealous.” She fingers the hem of her sweater, rolling the fabric into a taut tube, emphasizing the rise of her breasts, before releasing it.

“It’d be the first piece of luck I’ve had in a while,” Dan says.

“Who were you talking to earlier?” Peggy asks again.

He chuckles. “I was watching the lights in Grayson’s house. They turned off the overhead and were watching TV.”

Peggy leans forward and squints out the window to the Eilers’ home, where faint light still flickers behind the sheer curtains. She laughs. “Was Marcie jealous of Iris as well?”

Dan sips noisily from his beer. Peggy wrinkles her forehead, emphasizing three distinct, yet graceful lines. Her teeth glow in the delicate radiance through the windows.

“Where’s Gary?” Dan asks.

“Passed out in the family room,” Peggy states evenly.

“Stupid man.”

Peggy ignores the barb. “So…was Marcie right?”

Dan studies Peggy’s face; she maintains a close-lipped smile. Six months ago he would have laughed off Peggy’s question, but he raised the subject and elects not to censor what he told her. “I’ve always thought you were attractive, Peggy.” He pauses to reflect on what he will say next. “Not just outwardly. You’ve got a natural kindness. You’re funny and sexy.”

Peggy stares at Dan and he watches her features harden.

“I’m sorry,” Dan begins instinctively, and then stops himself. “You know what? I’m not sorry, Peggy. I’m not sorry I told you.”

Peggy extends her hand and waves it back and forth. “I don’t know how to react to you when you say those things.”

Dan brushes his thigh with the back of his hand. “I didn’t say it to get a reaction.”

“I’m really drunk, Dan.” Peggy says.

“Me, too…probably.”

“So we wouldn’t be responsible for anything that happened here…anything we did,” Peggy whispers as she crosses the short distance between them and positions herself before him. Her arms hang slack at her sides, her thumbs in line with the seams of her jeans. “Welcome to the law of unintended consequences.”

Dan watches as Peggy unzips her jeans and skims them down her slender thighs; they bunch at her feet and she kicks them aside. He sees her black panties as she kneel before him.

“No, Peggy.” He reaches out and grips her shoulders, holding her at arm’s length. “Don’t do this. You don’t want to do this.”

Peggy slumps to the floor, sitting cross-legged in front of him.

“What? You don’t want me now, Dan?” she snarls, as angry as Dan seemed earlier on her porch. She leans forward and bunches his shirt in her grasp. “I’m not interesting or attractive enough for you?”

Dan unfolds her fingers from their grip and eases her back against the coffee table. “Not as a consolation prize. Not when you’re drunk and trying to punish Gary.” The mind admits what the body denies; his fear of the danger of rejecting Peggy surrenders to the fear of allowing her to continue. Serendipity can be ill-timed and unproductive.

“So you’re just another bullshit artist with a dick, is that it?”

“You pegged me. A total bullshit artist.”

“A fucking tease, too,” Peggy slurs.

“The worst kind.”

“I’m not happy, Dan.” She sniffles.

“It doesn’t show so much…when you’re sober.” He stands and retrieves Peggy’s jeans. “Let’s get you dressed.”

Dan offers Peggy an arm, pleased when she takes it, pulling her to her feet, steadying her while she puts on her jeans. After she zips them, she slouches against Dan, resting her head on his shoulder while she weeps soundlessly. “Sometimes it’s all too much,” she whispers.

“Preaching to the choir.” Dan sighs.

Peggy encircles his neck with her arms and murmurs into his neck, “I miss intimacy the most.”

“Me, too,” Dan says, surprised by the genuineness of his reply.

Excerpt from a Novel in Progress – Harmony House

I don’t often…in fact have never…posted excerpts from a work in progress. But I feel like it today! I hope you enjoy this portion of the first chapter of my new novel, Harmony House, which I hope to complete early in 2013.

When the screen door scrapes open and music swells from inside the house, Dan again closes his eyes. Feigning sleep, he learned, serves him fittingly when he alienates friends or exasperates neighbors. When the party shifted from the porch to inside the house, the first time he closed his eyes, he understood why no one bothered trying to wake him…another polite, if grudging, acknowledgment of his status as a recent widower. As with an impish celebrity, they excuse his behavior. A woman approaches, her perfume delicately floral, and pauses beside him to tug the blanket snug to his chin. While evaluating this act of kindness, Dan opens his eyes to find Peggy Snell’s face intimately close to his and watches her expression shift from surprise to alarm. Retreating to pause beside his chair, Peggy screens her chest with folded arms, the sleeves of her cotton turtleneck pushed up to her elbows. Dan notes the fine dark hairs on her forearms.

“You should go home, Dan.” Peggy’s shoulder-length hair falls over one eye, partially shielding her gaze. She brushes it back behind her ear. “What was all that about tonight?”Image

Twenty years of public relations experience coalesce with guilt and Dan scrambles for a reason for his anger, a defense for its eruption. Depression? Grief? “I’m not sure what got into me.” He pauses. “I guess no one really wants me to stay, do they?” He cocks a thumb over his shoulder, indicating the people in the front room.

“Everyone sympathizes, Dan. They feel sad for you. But you were so unlike yourself tonight. Misfortune can seem like a disease and some people want to keep their distance from you. I think they expected you to suppress your anger rather than scatter it over everyone.” Peggy unfolds her arms and slips her hands into her pockets.

Dan realizes that since the funeral, his contact with his neighbors has been sparse; the porch party seemed a timely idea. “I don’t know why I felt so much anger.”

He slumps in the Adirondack chair with his legs propped on a wooden footrest, shrouded against the frostiness by the plaid stadium blanket. Fingering the coarse wool, he gazes over the porch railing at the trees across the street in Iske Park. The sun, setting behind the house, dipped below the level of the roofline, and what Dan sees astonishes him: autumnal leaves on the uppermost limbs arrested in a luxuriant blaze against the darkening eastern sky. Below the treetops, in the shadow cast by the house, the drab trunks and the dun-hued turf sulk; winter approaches. A squirrel scuttles around the trunk of a thick oak, its paws scratching on the crusty bark. Peggy and Dan watch the animal, its cheeks bulging with collected food.

“I wonder what it would be like to sleep all winter,” Dan says.

“Or watch all the comings and goings of your neighbors from the top of a tree,” Peggy replies.

This evening Dan’s target, Peggy’s husband Gary, initially received Dan’s hurled scornful jibes with laughter; but as he prolonged his assault, stillness fell among those lounging on the porch. An overweight man and off-putting in his flabbiness, Gary Snell does little to conceal his bulk. He favors generously-cut floral shirts and baggy khakis. His round head, capped with unruly red hair, accentuates his girth. Gary’s deep-set, brown eyes burrow above an expansive nose and paunchy cheeks on a broad, almost flat face. Dan resents how Gary injects himself into others’ conversations, punctuating his opinions with thrusts of a chunky finger and penetrating yelps of “Am I right? I mean am I right?” and “I’m not lying!” He also irritates Dan by finishing other people’s sentences during a conversation. Dan ended his sentences with non sequiturs, hoping to confound Gary’s expectation of what Dan would say next. It succeeded, triggering abundant laughter at Gary’s expense.

Dan reflects on what in particular about Gary annoyed him more: his appearance or his attitude. Or that he was a nail-biter. Over the course of an hour he pummeled the man repeatedly…mocking his weight, his eyeglass frames, the tufts of back hair poking above his shirt collar, and mimicking the cadence of his speech. When Gary tried to deflect Dan’s onslaught by criticizing Peggy in a sarcastic comment, Dan hammered at him more intently, oblivious to boundaries, embarrassing himself, until Peggy leaned across the short space between their two chairs and patted Dan’s hand, whispering a breathy “Easy there.” She then stood, her jeans tight over her thighs, asking if anyone wanted anything from the kitchen. Dan failed to appreciate the combustibility provoked by his words and tone, a mood he would have identified three months ago. Like a crocodile peering through the second set of eyelids, he observed nothing but his prey… perceived everyone as prey. Surveying the porch in that moment, Dan strove to remind himself that these people, friends whom he had known for years, plainly sought to lighten the grief of his wife’s death. He wondered if he would always behave this way now, lashing out, without Marcie as a limiter on his rush toward extremes. Despite that insight, Dan feared his neighbors were becoming people about whom he no longer cared; that realization angered him…but deciding how to channel that anger mystified him, so he lashed out wildly, like a blind swordsman.

“You know, some years before the cancer, Marcie thought I had the hots for you,” he tells Peggy. “She claimed I ogled you at parties. We argued about it a few times…she was always a stronger woman when we were fighting. Otherwise she was pretty docile.”

“I never noticed,” Peggy says, turning away from the park and gazing through the front window. “You paying attention to me, I mean.”

Dan detects a tone of disbelief in her voice that he supposes is genuine, wondering if Peggy believed that Marcie was correct in her suspicion.

“She could be really jealous. But she never showed it to anyone but me.”

“Uh huh.” Peggy’s voice flattens and Dan wonders if he is boring or irritating her.

“She thought I was constantly prowling for something else, someone else. Thinking with my dick.”

“You mean being a man?” Peggy smiles as she regards Dan.

“Sure. I’ll go with that. Doing what we guys do.” Dan pauses and despite Peggy’s earlier kindness to him, he narrows the focus on her. “But she really singled out how she says I looked at you. Kept accusing me of thinking you were so hot, asking what made you so special, and repeating over and over how she knew I wanted you.”

“Are you serious, Dan? Or are you just trying to piss me off?”

“My mouth to God’s ear.” Dan raises a hand as though swearing an oath. “I’m surprised you didn’t pick up on it. Marcie wasn’t that good an actor.”

The two of them say nothing for a few moments while the music and voices from within the house jell into a uniform echo.

“You went too far with Gary tonight, Dan,” Peggy says.

“Oh, give me a break, Peggy. He’s a big boy…a very big boy…he should be able to take care of himself.”

“That’s not the point. It’s not about him, it’s about you and the way you treated people tonight…it was ugly and everyone saw it.”

“So? What do I care?”

“You should care, Dan. These people are your friends. If you treat them badly, insulting them when all they want to do is console you…then you’re going to lose your friends.”

“Maybe they’re really not my friends,” Dan says.

“Oh, don’t sulk like a child,” Peggy admonishes, shaking her head. “Being petulant is no better than being hurtful.”

“So you all want me to be happy. Gosh, thanks. But what about you…are you happy with Gary, Peggy?” Dan asks.

Peggy shivers. “We’re not going to have this conversation Dan.”

Dan flips aside the stadium blanket and slowly stands. Peggy tilts her head back and stares past him, where the volume of the music suddenly decreases. “Everyone deserves to feel something other than anger day-in and day-out,” he says.

“What about you, Dan?” Peggy presses her lips together so tightly they pale.

Dan glances toward the complaint of the door opening once again. “I’m just coasting along, trying to stay balanced. I don’t need or want any high or low spikes for a while.”

Grayson Eilers pokes his head around the screen door. “Everything okay out here?” he asks.

“I’m being banished, Grayson,” Dan says. “But lovingly.”

Grayson bobs his head, stroking the door frame absently. “You were a little rough on Gary tonight, Dan,” he says.

Dan mulls over his reply as Peggy leans against the porch railing, steadying herself by gripping it with both hands.

“Dan was just going home,” she says.

“Yeah,” he says, turning toward the porch steps, grazing his fingertips against Peggy’s knee as he maneuvers around her. “I’m homeward bound.”

“I just wanted to make sure you’re all right, Dan. If you ever need someone to talk to…” Grayson offers as Dan walks past him, steering toward the steps.

Dan resists the urge to assault Grayson’s compassion, opting for restraint in front of Peggy. “No need, my friend,” Dan says. “No need.”

As he clomps down the steps, past the slumping Jack-o-Lantern, its misshapen face, collapsed, gnawed by squirrels, Peggy calls after Dan. “I’ll check on you tomorrow.”

Dan acknowledges her statement by raising his arm and waving it, then jams his hands in the pockets of his jeans and strides down the sidewalk toward his house, never turning to look at her.

Changing Directions Mid-Stream (Mid-Novel)

A week ago I stagnated in the draft of my new novel. This wasn’t mere writer’s block…it was a fugue about where the book was headed. At roughly the mid-point of the novel, I was unsatisfied with the progress and came to the conclusion that I needed to revise the draft, alter the plot, re-imagine the characters, and possibly change the point of view. I prefer not to throw the baby out with the bath water, so I concluded a critical reading to salvage what I could and started over.

The novel had been entitled Scenes from an Untethered Life…I liked that title when I first created it more than two years ago, but the themes it dictated seem hollow now. The new title is Harmony House. The protagonist and many of the primary characters continue to inhabit the neighborhood setting in which I located them, but their attitudes, their circumstances, and their actions take the book in a different direction…a more optimistic and hopeful direction. I suppose therein lies the change: hope.Image

I enjoy the examination of relationships in my fiction…some readers have commented that my reflections along these lines lack humor, implying that I am funny but my work is serious, or sad. The sad clown comes to mind, but strikes me as a bit too trite. As well, death has been a central feature in each of my works of fiction…but I have tried to use it as a springboard to self-discovery. Harmony House is no different…the death of a character moves the work and provides much of the impetus for what happens throughout.

To butcher a metaphor, the decision to rework the book is more than changing horses mid-stream: I’ve turned around and galloped off in search of a new stream. The only thing I’ve sacrificed is time, but that’s a commodity in abundance, and the freedom I now feel…my personal untethering…energizes me.

It’s a good decision…it steers me toward the book I want to write, rather than the book I found myself writing.

An Excerpt from My Most Recent Novel – A Final Reflection

A Final Reflection

Day One

This morning, after emerging from the garage in our building’s basement, I turned onto Madison, heading west, away from the city. A glance in the rearview revealed Tallie standing in the street near the curb, both hands crossed over her heart. She was barefoot, in jeans and a black, long-sleeved t-shirt. At the stop sign by the corner I lifted my camera from the passenger seat, aimed it at the rearview mirror, and snapped a photo. After I took the photo of Tallie, I turned on my iPod and played the first of thirty playlists I created for this trip, one for each day. The Eagles’ “Ol’ ‘55” suffused me with calm resolution. I’m propped up in bed studying that photo now. Tallie, in the mirrored glass stands in sharp focus. Everything else is blurred. It’s an analytical photo and when she sees it, she’ll appreciate both its composition and its symbolism.

I’ve allotted myself thirty days for this journey, but don’t expect a travelogue…I’m not cataloguing any passing scenery or tracking the number of miles logged. Every journey involves self-discovery, and mine will certainly involve elements of that, but the point of this exploration lies in others. I have mapped out a trek through the western U.S. to visit seven people who are or have been important to me at some point in my life. A coin flip determined the western states as opposed to those states east of Chicago, where we live. I determined the seven individuals less by chance.

They include friends, family, old lovers…and a stranger.

Once she had accepted the inevitability of my trip, Tallie helped me pack, selecting my clothing…sweaters, pants, and shirts…appropriate for the weather she anticipated I would encounter. She double-checked the telephone numbers and email addresses in both my cell phone and on my laptop. One of the conditions she specified: contact her at least once each day. Tallie may have relented about this trip, but that doesn’t mean her fear of my leaving is any less strident. We have been married for more than thirty-five years, together exclusively for three years beyond that. Both faithful that entire time. More deeply devoted to one another and more passionately in love now than the year before, also true for the year before that. The two of us have grown…independently and together…with a harmony that others envy. I understand how our history might frighten her…at times it both amazes and frightens me, too. Our connection seems too flawless, so she can be forgiven for expecting the arcing pendulum to slice through that perfection, to counter our mass of good fortune with unbelievable sorrow. If she needs a bogeyman, isn’t that the role of my diseased pancreas? Is this illness the consequence of decades of unwarranted good luck? Not likely. I don’t believe in karma; I’m inclined to place my faith in chaos.

I checked into a motel on the outskirts of Minneapolis that offers free Wi-Fi and a continental breakfast with fresh waffles. The TV is on but I’ve muted the sound. It was dark and raining when I parked the Saab. I considered telephoning Tallie but elected to send her an email letting her know I had arrived safely. She would have preferred a call, but an impulse convinced me to establish a fragment of separation on this first night. My computer lays cradled in my lap as I begin the first entry in this, what…journal? Already I fear what to say. How much is too much? What is too little? How much background is enough to understand the indulgence I’m trying to satisfy? Who is my audience?

I’m sixty-four years old. My parents are both dead. I have no children with Tallie. That’s the outline, as ordinary as so many others. The extraordinary, as in so many others as well, is quantified day-by-day in moments captured by memory. Some of those moments will dictate how I spend the next twenty-nine days, as the people I visit have been actors in many of the remembered scenes. I’m not so different from millions of other people, but like each individual, I am unique. And, of course, I am dying, which scares me. How people neutralize fear varies with their character. It’s not in my character to accept this death sentence easily, but I don’t tilt at windmills, either. On at least one emotional level, I have accepted that I am going to die. I simply need a bit more preparation. Hence the trip. Securing a leave of absence from my firm was not difficult…my name’s on the letterhead. I laugh when I reflect on how fortunate I’ve been throughout my life. Dying may very well be the only hardship I ever face. Not many people, in my experience, can claim that.

The choice of who to see on this trip was mine, something I didn’t share with Tallie. No point in compounding her anger over my trip by layering decision on top of decision like bricks in a wall. Keeping her in the dark led to another condition: when I return home I owe Tallie a debriefing. She’ll get a complete report, perhaps in the form of this journal. On that I am ambivalent at the moment.

Tomorrow I’m having breakfast with Ellen Solomon…a former college lover…whom I haven’t seen in more than twelve years. When we met in the early seventies, she was a dark-haired and dark-eyed girl, with an angular face that emphasized her edgy demeanor. She expressed inflexible opinions with a passionate personality. That passion carried over into the bedroom. I caught Ellen during the height of her rebellion against everything her middle-class parents cherished. For a short time we shared an off-campus apartment where we regularly fucked with the devotion of athletes in training.

Ellen joked about being the only Jewish child in North Dakota. Her parents farmed a small acreage outside of Hague, near the South Dakota border. As the valedictorian of her high school class, she garnered a scholarship to the University of Iowa, where she studied literature and film criticism, and practiced a highly-personalized variety of revolution designed to thwart the intrusion of any influence of her mother’s values on her own. She purified her wit and insightfulness, later earned a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and moved to Minneapolis to work as a film and theatre critic. She married and later divorced. I saw her at the Chicago Film Festival, where she moderated a panel contrasting postwar films from World War II through the first Gulf War.

She retired from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune a year ago and now writes a blog about film, politics and women’s issues. Ellen remains one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met… astute, funny, acerbic and nuanced. We’ve corresponded over the years…she more than I…writing seemed to come easily to her. Watching Ellen channel her energy into articles, and now her blog, has been a pleasure. For the past twenty years we’ve mostly maintained an email relationship: lengthy periods of silence periodically shattered by a few days of frenzied volleying, as we dissected a current event. Ellen never filtered these discussions through our shared past…her vision always seemed focused on the horizon.

Tallie knows about Ellen….she and I long ago disclosed our romantic and sexual histories, enumerating the various partners. So Tallie knows of Ellen’s existence, but not the extent to which I have continued the relationship. There’s no infidelity, but Tallie’s jealousy would never allow her to see my correspondence with Ellen as friendship, only as a threat. No reassurance could ever convince her otherwise, she’s that insecure. So I have kept Ellen a secret.

I suppose I’ve revealed the first crack in the veneer of our perfection, haven’t I?

Tallie and I met at a rooftop party weeks after I passed the bar exam. She lived across the hall from the woman who threw the party. Alison worked in my office, a serial monogamist with devastating taste in men, favoring assholes with flashy disguises to plainer men of substance. When Alison’s lovers inevitably tired of her, Tallie comforted her neighbor with tissues, chocolate, a pint of ice cream, and a sympathetic shoulder, while Alison sniffled her way through another break-up.

That first night I spotted Tallie, her blond hair, always wild and unkempt, seemed aflame. She had a symmetrically round face, a delicate chin, and above a petite, but slightly crooked nose she wore granny glasses that magnified glacial blue eyes. She was stunning in faded corduroy pants, a cotton turtleneck and scuffed leather boots. The imperfection of her nose, that tiny bend of the bridge, tempered her beauty and made her seem approachable. She was drinking red wine, so I boosted an open bottle of Merlot from the serving table and crossed the deck to refill her glass. I’ve never been shy, but as I chatted with Tallie that night I felt my mind seizing up from time to time; I worried I would say something stupid enough to allow her to ignore or dismiss me and bestow her attention on someone else. Certain people in life you meet and the encounter seems less a meeting than a reunion, so immediately comfortable are you with one another. I sensed Tallie and me embodying such serenity that night.

I recall morsels of our conversation that night…we each regarded our jobs as good entry-level springboards; we agreed the view of the city from the rooftop deck was disappointing; and the fate of the Cubs was just that…their fate…but what impressed me as most extraordinary was how her eyes deepened to indigo as the sun set, how the candlelight teased her smile in the dark, and how the wine warmed us both when an evening chill rode the breeze. Sex was prominent in my imagination that night. I had already envisioned the contours of Tallie’s body, the smoothness of her skin and the softness of her lips. Honestly, the physical attraction had been immediate and I fantasized about the two of us sleeping together from the first minute of our conversation. Spoiler alert: we didn’t have sex that night, but we embraced one another’s company throughout the rest of the party.

Years later, on an anniversary, each of us recounted for the other our impressions from that first night. Nostalgic honesty is required entertainment for a couple. Tallie had understood that sex constantly occupied men’s consciousness, but years after the fact, I had stunned her by recounting the specifics of assessing the kind of fine fuck I thought she’d be. Yes, she had been attracted to me as well and had entertained the possibility of intimacy. But intimacy, she had explained, outshined the physical; it occasioned an emotional bond. Women and men, she had chuckled, approached these affairs from divergent positions, at which point I had made a coarse joke about positions. Tallie had rewarded me with an open palm slap to my ass. Did I mention we were in bed at the time?

We spent a lot of time having sex in our early years together, craving the sensation of skin next to skin, clasping one another so tightly, merging as closely to one being as we physically and emotionally dared. We exploited fucking as a language and relied on spontaneity to schedule it…anywhere and everywhere. Besides our apartments: after hours in our offices, an alley behind a bar in the Gold Coast, a parking garage in Old Town, along the lake shore bike path. The threat of discovery in public places intimidated us but never prevented us. Sex with Tallie is the most intense connection I’ve ever attained with another person. I remember the Sunday morning of my epiphany during our first summer together, a few weeks after that rooftop party, weeknights of slippery pleasure and weekends of sluggish tenderness. Tallie lay beneath me, her legs roped around my ass, as I slowly slid in and out of her. I propped myself on my elbows, gripped her face with both hands and searched her eyes…craving to recognize in her a sign that she reciprocated what I felt, that we were intended to be with one another. I distrust the impulse of fate but fixed on a romantic ideal: one woman would see me as no other would ever be able to see me. Had I found her? Was Tallie that woman? When I came I locked on her eyes…she stared at me and for an instant, an immeasurable pulse beat, they dilated and the arctic blue sparked with brilliant light. I know it was probably a projection, but that beam forged a link between us. Then her eyes softened, they visibly calmed as her face melted from a fierce expression into a smile more benevolent than anything I’ve ever seen. I identified with that moment more than in any previous moment in my life. It eclipsed romanticism and I knew it would devastate me if Tallie hadn’t felt the same. I’m a far more cynical man now than when I was twenty-five, but I am and have always been a romantic. I needed Tallie or what Tallie represented…a matching puzzle piece, my complement…so that’s what she became. If you strive for an ideal, should you be surprised when you find it? My God, that does sound cynical.

Tallie and I were the last people to leave the rooftop that night. I walked her downstairs where the party continued in Alison’s apartment, but Tallie said she was tired, so we hugged and said good night at her door. I told her I wanted to see her again. She said she would like that. And history tells the rest of the story.

Driving today was more easygoing than I had expected. I wasn’t certain how I’d react to sitting in the car for hours. I’m a bit sore; there’s a stinging throb in my lower back, but Janine warned that could be a side effect of the cancer.  I considered taking one of her pain killers, then decided against it. I worry about developing a reliance on them too quickly, not just on this trip, but in what time I have left. I don’t know what I expected, but the moments when I dwell on the gravity of this disease and its death sentence erupt like ambushes; gooseflesh prickles along my skin and a chilly shiver surges from the base of my spine straight to my head. What an old-fashioned rush it is. I remember a sergeant in my platoon in the Marines, a veteran of both Korea and Vietnam, swearing that death was the ultimate rush. I suppose I’m primed to confirm that assertion.

Am I frightened? How could I not be scared. I’m months from death, and one thing I learned in Vietnam was you cannot defeat fear, but you can contain it, can prevent it from containing you. If you ask me have I accepted death…I don’t know. I won’t deny it, but the lack of denial doesn’t constitute acceptance. This trip is evidence of at least partial acceptance.

I’ve always enjoyed my analytical mind.

I can be emotional but rarely sentimental.

Tallie and I have traveled. We’ve created some amazing adventures as well as humble moments. We’ve acknowledged our regrets and we’ve celebrated our triumphs.

I’m tired and I think it’s causing me to ramble. I wanted this journal to be methodical and organized. But a linear storyline seems to have been blown out of the water already.

I’ll try and get some sleep, although an Inspector Morse rerun just started on the TV. One of my guilty pleasures…BBC mysteries.