Concept: My Father’s Daughter

As I stood in the elevator alone and watched the doors close in front of me, my heart sank. I felt my heartbeat throbbing in my throat. A weakness in my knees threatened to topple me to the floor of the elevator as it rose five stories. I feared what I would see. I didn’t want to believe it was true, and I thought, just for a moment, that if I turned around and left the hospital, refusing to see it, that it wouldn’t be true, that my father wouldn’t be lying in some hospital bed clinging to what remained of his life.

Each floor ticked off with a light chime that seemed too cheery for this place, a little ding that you might hear on an annoying child’s toy. I watched the tiny screen above the buttons change as I rode higher. My chest felt constricted and became more so as I saw three, four, and then, five appear on the monochrome display. The car came to a soft stop, and the doors hesitated for a moment before they slid open revealing another set of elevator doors across the hall and a small sofa with green plants on either side at the end of the space with the six metal doors.

I stared at the empty sofa for a moment when I stepped off the elevator. It seemed to be an odd place to put a sofa, and the plants, although lively, didn’t really make this space any brighter.Three long windows sat high above the sofa and drew light into what would have been a dark and lonely space. I could see the blue sky through the windows, brightened by the warm fall day that I had been enjoying just hours ago. Things can change so quickly.

I turned right and stepped from the plush carpet of the elevator area and onto the matte tile lining a long hallway that ran the length of the rectangular building. To my left, under the glaring, unkind fluorescent lights, I saw nurses and doctors gliding across the hall, moving from one door to another and disappearing and reappearing like actors exiting and entering the stage in some macabre play, their chatter calm and indecipherable from where I stood. None of them noticed me watching them even though I stared for a good minute or two without moving.

To my right, a waiting room had been wedged into the corner at the end of the hall. Unlike the antiseptic pathway leading to the patient rooms, this area evoked the warmth and welcome of a mountain lodge. Faux wood paneling covered the ceiling. The walls were painted a soft yellow color. Plush, tan sofas matching the fabric of the one behind me stood back to back in even lines along the walls and down the middle of the room. At the other end of the room was a fire place with a soft flame licking the gas logs behind thick glass.

Only one person sat in the waiting room – an old man whose head lolled to the side on his chest as he napped on the sofa. I could only see his profile from where I stood, but I could feel his exhaustion. It emanated from him like the heat from the fire on the other side of him. He wore a red and black checked flannel shirt and had the sleeves rolled up to his forearms, which rested on his prodigious gut as he slept. His skin was pale and spotty, and his thinning white hair clung to a reddened scalp that looked as if it had been freshly sunburned. He wore faded jeans and black tennis shoes with Velcro fasteners. He reminded me of my maternal grandfather from many years ago, and I tried to smile at the memory, but I wasn’t in the mood for smiling.

“Can I help you?” a sweet, feminine voice said to me.

At first, it startled me, but as I swung my head around from the waiting area to the space in front of me, I realized that I had completely missed the reception desk that stood at the entrance to the elevators. I didn’t think anyone was there when I first arrived, or else I would have noticed her.

I looked at the young lady before me. She couldn’t have been more than 20 years old. I felt sorry for her, stuck here all day among the old and infirm and death. I was at least twice her age, and I didn’t think I could handle it if I were her.

“I’m here for Charles Parsons,” I said mechanically. I felt like I had been reciting that line repeatedly for a long time, and maybe I had. Maybe that’s what my mind worked on as I made the anxious drive over. Maybe a part of me had taken over from the part that was shattered to ensure that I could function somewhat.

“Are you family?”

“I’m his daughter.”

She gave me a look of pity, something she probably did many times every day, and peered into a computer screen I could not see beneath the counter in front of her. She wore glasses, and I could see the reflection of the bright screen in her lenses. I watched the screen flicker as she pecked and pointed until she arrived at an answer.

“He’s in 514.” She stood up from behind the counter and leaned toward me. She pointed down the hall with her right arm. “Go about half way down this hall, and the room should be on the left.”

I looked down the hall and squinted as if I were trying to see the door leading to room 514. My knees felt like they were going to buckle. My legs wobbled, while my feet refused to move at first. Somewhere deep inside me, I found the will to take that first step and I shuffled down the hall. I could feel the young lady’s eyes on me. I felt subconscious about it and tried to look normal; although, inside, I felt nothing like normal.

Each door had a number on the left side of its frame near eye level. I could see the tiny dots of Braille beneath the large printed letters, and a part of me wanted to stop and feel those tiny dots on my fingertips. I needed something to distract me from what I was about to see. Anything really. Even something I did not understand was preferable to what waited for me in Room 514.

I slowed my pace. Doctors and nurses whizzed by me. Some nodded and smiled, but most just went about their business like seeing me in the midst of their sullen ballet was perfectly normal. I could still feel my heart beating in my chest. I felt weaker, and I wondered if any of the doctors or nurses realized what was going on with me, if they would suddenly stop and ask if I was okay. I was not okay.

I stopped at one door – 512 – and took a deep breath. I listened carefully, trying to determine what was going on next door, but I could hear nothing other than the steps in the hall around me and the occasional beep or wheeze of a machine. I swallowed hard and stepped over to the next room. I took one more deep breath before I opened the door.

The moment I opened the door, a fearful image struck me – my father laying unconscious on a partially inclined hospital bed with all types of wires crossing his body. A mask with a tube connected to one of the machines covered his face. The whir and beeping of the machines sucked the life out of the room. I could barely detect the rise and fall of his chest under the blanket that covered him. His arms lay by his side over the top of the blanket, but wires and tubes attached to his skin like leeches sucking the remaining life from his body.

No one else was in the room. I moved to a chair next to the bed and fell into it. He didn’t fidget or acknowledge my presence. A wave of sorrow and fear struck me as I leaned onto the bed and put my hand in his, but it felt cold and lifeless, unresponsive. I could no longer hold back. I buried my head into the space next to our hands and cried.

I thought I heard a nurse or doctor enter the room, so I leaned up to see who was there, but by the time I wiped the tears from my eyes to see clearly, I was staring at an empty space. I looked back at the door, but it appeared to be just as I had left it with barely an inch of light creeping into the dim room from the hallway. I wiped my face with the sleeve of my shirt and turned back to my father.

He looked terrible. He had been mostly healthy after he retired and had retained much of the gusto and good spirits that had characterized him his entire life, but now, he looked all of his 75 years – worn and feeble. His skin looked loose on his large frame, and even his big hands looked frail. I wasn’t used to seeing my father as someone who was weak. It didn’t fit him, and I didn’t like it. I desperately wanted the strong man I had loved all of my life back.

I spoke to him. My voice sounded uncertain and mousy like I was a ten-year-old girl meeting him for the first time. He still didn’t move, nor did his eyes flicker to give any indication that he knew I was there. I wished my mother were still alive. She would handle this better than me; she’d tell me what to do, and I would do it. I needed that right now. I didn’t want to be the only person my father had left.

I leaned back toward his hand and kissed it. The skin on his hand felt slippery and unnatural on my lips. More tears rolled down my cheeks and blurred my vision. I felt lost and hopeless. I wiped the tears away but more came.

The door creaked behind me. The light from the hallway briefly brightened the room before a shadow stretched across the wall in front of me. I turned to see who had entered. A woman, older than me, stood in the door way, hesitating as if she had opened the wrong door. She stared at me a moment as I absorbed the whole of her. She wore loose sweatpants and a nylon jacket with a bright pink stripe that ran along her arms and over her shoulders. Her hair, stringy and rather unkempt, hung loosely above her collar. She had thick glasses and wore a lot of makeup despite her rather casual dress. Something in her eyes seemed familiar, but I couldn’t quite place where or if I had seen her before.

She stepped forward and pushed the door shut behind her but did not allow it to close all the way. “Kate?” she asked.

I struggled with recall but managed to mumble, “Yes…” I couldn’t determine if I should know this woman or not.

A half smile, somewhat pained, crossed her face. She paused for a moment as if she were waiting for me to recognize her. I stared at her intently searching my memory for those large eyes and that round face, but nothing came to me.

“It’s Tina,” she said as if her name alone were enough. She grew impatient. “Your step-sister.”

She had barely spit the words from her mouth when I finally recognized who she was. Calling me her step-sister was a stretch at most. I hadn’t seen her since my father’s 50th birthday party, and even that was a memory I had chosen to forget. We were never sisters of any kind. She was the only child from my father’s first marriage, which had ended acrimoniously when he had met my mother. My father, despite his best efforts, was not part of her life, and she slowly faded from his until she became like that unsavory relative that no one spoke of.

“Tina…how did you know he was in the hospital?”

“Ma told me.”

“How did she know?”

“They got back together.”

Her words seemed indecipherable at first and then unbelievable. My father hated his first wife. He never told me so himself, but I had overheard many of my parents’ conversations when I was growing up, enough to know that the wretched woman was an unholy burden on him. I knew immediately that she was lying to me. He would never go back to her.

Before I could refute her words, Tina moved to the other side of the bed and took my father’s other hand. She ignored me and looked at him as if she had been a part of his life all along. She had this adoring look on her face – both sad and admiring.

I wanted to stand up and slap her hand away from his. She had no right to be here. She had done nothing but cause trouble for my father from the moment she was born. She had purposefully tried to break up my parents – and failed at that – and I didn’t want her to have any part in his life now for my sake and for my late mother’s sake.

She started talking to him in a low, whiny voice and it grated on my nerves. I stood to ask her to leave, but then, my father startled in the bed and his eyes fluttered. My attention went straight to him and for a brief respite I forgot all about Tina even though she was standing two feet away from me. My surging anger shifted to hope, hope that my father would be alright and that he’d send Tina back to whatever hole she had crawled out of.

Beginnings Matter

I’m writing my next concept to post here soon. It’s not ready yet. Most of the ideas in my notebook are nothing more than a short paragraph explaining the general concept behind the story. I may note character names, places, or the voice of the story, but these entries usually describe the gist of the conflict. To turn them into functioning stories requires a lot of thought. Ideas are a dime a dozen; readable novels are much harder to produce.

Whether the story has legs is a judgment call, but no matter how novel-worthy the concept may be, if I can’t start it right, then it’s not going far. The beginning of a novel has to draw the reader in and leave them dying to read the next chapter. I’ve started many books that I’ve abandoned because the beginning left me unenthusiastic about where the story was headed.

Here’s the beginning from my favorite novel, Shantaram, but Gregory David Roberts:

It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured.

That’s just the first sentence of the first chapter, but it’s powerful. It pulls you in immediately. What did he learn? Why is he being tortured? Where is he? What’s going to happen? These are just a few of the questions that entered my mind when I opened his wonderful novel and began to read. Roberts masterfully begins his story with introspection and vivid imagery. You’re immediately interested in the narrator and what he’s doing. What follows is almost one thousand pages of a fantastic story that takes you through the guts of the city of Bombay while Roberts runs from the law and works for the mob. I loved it, but the beginning is what got me.

This novel really drove home the fact that beginnings matter. Sure, it’s self-evident. If you don’t like what you first read, you’ll put the book down forever, but I’d argue it’s more than that. I’ve read plenty of books that have started slow and gotten better like a rickety, old car engine that has to be run a bit before you can put the car into drive. I’m a determined reader; I give novels a benefit of a doubt before I give up on them (in fact, I gave Roberts’ second book almost a third of the way before I gave up on it, disappointed that he didn’t recapture the magic of his first one). At the same time, when I find a book that’s interesting, I always read the first page or two to see if it truly interests me. If my curiosity is not piqued in that short read, most likely, I won’t buy the book.

Knowing this as a reader, I always want my novels to begin in the most interesting way possible. I want to hook the reader immediately. My beginning has to be stellar. If it isn’t, then my novel most likely won’t be well-received. Beginnings matter. They can be the difference between success and failure, so each concept I post here, although in draft form, has to be something that’d make you keep on reading. If not, it will forever remain just that – a concept.

Novels & Marathons

I ran the Sioux Falls Marathon yesterday, so I had a lot of time to think about many things from 9/11 to writing to life to running (yes, you think about running while running – or at least I do). One of my favorite things to do when running, especially during long runs, is to turn over story ideas in my head. Most of my time was spent working through how I’m going to end one of my current projects, Into the Caldera. I’m in the last two chapters of that one, and I want to end it on a thrilling note.

I tossed around several ideas as I ran along the Big Sioux River outside Sioux Falls. I expect to finish the rough draft this week, and I’m confident I know how I want to end it. It’s just a matter of executing.

Speaking of execution, as I thought about my novel on the run, I couldn’t help but compare writing a novel to running a marathon. They are more similar than you might think. Sure, one is mental and the other is mostly physical, but they both share a common profile. Or, maybe it was just my depleted glycogen stores playing tricks on me. It’s been known to happen, but hear me out.

Novels, like marathons, begin with a lot of pomp and circumstance (at least in my head). There’s the excitement of beginning a journey and where it will take you. Of course, you know where a marathon will take you, but the journey to that destination is largely unknown (will I feel great the whole race or will I be reduced to a shuffling mess at mile 24?). Every single time I’ve begun a novel I’ve been pumped to type those first few words or sentences onto the page. The first chapter usually just flows from my fingertips as if the novel were writing itself. I’m usually so excited to start that I could spend the entire day just writing.

That excitement carries over to the first few miles…err…chapters. It’s like the momentum of the start just carries me forward with little effort. No sweat. This is the honeymoon stage where I’m simply in love with the idea of the novel and enjoying the first steady miles of a race. I’m all smiles. There’s no struggle. No doubts. Just me and the pages or miles that whisk by without a care in the world.

Like all honeymoons, this feeling soon comes to an end. The dreaded middle of the novel announces itself just like mile 13 in a marathon makes you realize that you are ONLY halfway to the finish. What? I have to do that mileage again?  The excitement at the beginning belies the ugly truth that the middle won’t be so easy to navigate. Every single author struggles with this, or at least, this is what they say in the articles and videos I’ve seen. I know I struggle with it. My pace slows, ideas seem at odds with the feel of the novel, and I wonder aloud how I’m going to have that great ending I’ve already planned. By mile 13 in a marathon, my pace starts to slow, I start to question my sanity, and I wonder how I’m going to hit my goal time. See. It’s the same.

The flutter and stutter of the middle is enough to make anyone want to quit. Doubt sets in and desire comes into question. I’m reading a training book called How Bad Do You Want It? by noted professional athlete Matt Fitzgerald. His central theme in the book is that winning (however you define it) boils down to your psychobiological makeup and how bad you want it. He’s talking about athletic endeavors like running, but he could say the same thing about writing a novel. Getting through the lull in the middle really tests your mettle, and it’s not just getting through it, it’s creating something that will make your reader want to keep reading. Easier said than done.

The good news is that if you can make it through the middle of a novel (or a marathon), you can bring it home. As I hit the mile 24 marker yesterday, my feet started moving faster. I could taste the finish line. I pumped my legs harder. The sooner I crossed that line, the sooner I could rest and shower, both of which had immense appeal to me at that moment. Likewise, when I’m nearing the final chapters of a novel, I start working more furiously. It’s like I received a fresh jolt of creative energy because I can see the end. I can’t wait to cross that finish line to the first draft.

During the mad dash to the finish, all those doubts fade away. While I may have questioned why I was even doing this in the first place during that awful lull, the only thing I’m thinking when I cross the finish line is “When can I do this again?” All that pain and I still haven’t learned my lesson.

Maybe I’m a masochist after all.