The Battle of the Bench

When you find the right partner in life, marriage can be a joyful union of best friends. It helps when you don’t take things too seriously and you can find the humor in the mundane and absurd. Sometimes, the most inane things can take on comical proportions when two people play off each other perfectly. Such is the case in the battle of the bench.

It all started over two years ago when my family moved to a new house. We had purposefully downsized to a smaller home because we had grown tired of the large yard and unused rooms in our old house and the infinite upkeep that it required. We found a delightfully right-sized townhouse that had no yard but sizable common areas that were maintained by the homeowners’ association. This change allowed us to spend our free time in more enjoyable ways (Yay! No more weekends of yard work!), but it also presented space challenges since the new house had less space.

Shoehorning our lives into the new house was less of an issue for us since we’re the opposite of pack rats, except for our son – he has inherited my mom’s penchant for keeping everything he lays his hands on. Nevertheless, we efficiently pruned our furniture and other belongings until we had the perfect balance in each room. The only room that looked even a little over-stuffed was the master bedroom because neither my wife nor I were willing to part with our suite of furniture, much less the glorious bed we called home for eight or so hours every night. We’d more likely give up one of the kids before we cast aside the siren call of that sweetly-plump, king-sized mattress.

We made the furniture fit in a room half the size of our former bedroom with enough space to move freely around the room without clipping our toes on the sharp, wooden edges our our bed posts. In fact, there was enough space to put a bench at the foot of bed so that I could sit down while putting on my shoes each morning. I suggested as much to my wife, but she deftly rebuffed my suggestion stating that there wasn’t enough room. I ignored her logic and pleaded my case, going as far to break out my measuring tape and miming how said bench would fit in said space. She couldn’t be convinced.

Failing at using the precision of measurement to persuade my wife to add a bench to our collection of bedroom furniture, I made a big deal of putting on my shoes each morning – from the floor. My histrionics reached epic proportions miming back pain or pretending that I was part of one of those Medi-Alert commercials where the protagonist had fallen and couldn’t get up. None of my bad acting swayed my wife. A bench was not in my future. As long as we stayed in that house, I’d be benchless in Seattle. I’d be lacing my shoes for eternity from our bedroom floor. Such conditions affronted my sense of self and condemned my manhood on some level I’m sure.

These antics went on for two years, and my wife would just smile each time I brought it up or politely ignore my inciting comments much like she’d ignore the kids when they were toddlers and had one of their implacable moments that thrived on attention. I felt defeated, deflated, but then we had to move again.

The circumstances of our cross-country move left me searching for our next home alone with only photographic or video reports back to my wife in Seattle. She had to rely on me to choose where we’d live, which meant I could chose a home with a master bedroom plenty big enough for a bench. I was unnaturally excited about the power I had. I’d get my bench. This much I knew. Each home I walked through required a long stop in the master bedroom to picture my new bench at the foot of our bed. I felt like the Grinch plotting my descent into Whoville except instead of taking things away, I was adding something.

I finally decided on a house, and after seeing the pictures and video, my wife agreed. I could feel the soft cushion of my bench already and we hadn’t moved in yet. As we moved our stuff into the house and settled each piece of furniture in its rightful place, I couldn’t help but smile when one of our sofas landed in the master bedroom. I finally had my bench – not only that, it was a significant upgrade to the original bench I had envisioned two years ago. As I settled into the sofa on that first morning in our new house to put on my shoes, I soaked in the victory. I felt like doing a lap around the bedroom with my arms raised in boastful pride. I had won the battle of the bench. I tried not to gloat, but I can’t help myself. It’s been a few months since we moved in, and I still bring it up. I’m lucky my wife has a great sense of humor (but I still won).

The Legend of Loowit

I love Indian legends and the Pacific Northwest, so it’s only natural that the two would come together in my writing. Here’s the new opening chapter for Into the Caldera.

Jenn Wallace stood frozen in her tracks, her feet firmly planted on the rocky path beneath her. Her shoulders slumped forward and her hands hung loosely by her side as she glared ahead. She felt sullen, agitated. Her mother, and her mother’s boyfriend, Carl, walked up ahead, fingers intertwined. He had leaned in and kissed her mother on her forehead in a way that Jenn had not recognized before, and her mother had fawned, eyes blinking and upturned, at him as he smiled back at her. They had paused for a moment to make this exchange and then moved slowly further up the trail that winded beside Mt. St. Helens. They did not notice that Jenn had stopped. She exhaled a low whine.

Jenn looked down at her scraped shin, speckled with dry blood and bluish skin. She winced and bent down to touch it. The press of her finger tips sent a current of pain to her brain and she whimpered. Anger replaced the pain. She wanted to yell out to her mother for forcing her to go on this trip. She didn’t want to go camping. She didn’t want to climb over the endless sea of rocks. She had wanted to stay home.

The adults kept moving forward, ignoring her. She looked away in anger and scanned the space around her. Tears welled in her eyes blurring the landscape, but the sheer vastness of it all made her feel isolated and alone, even more than she did at home with her mother and Carl. Before Carl came along, her mother had mostly focused on her in spite of a long line of boyfriends who dipped in and out of her life. None of them ever stuck around, like her faceless father, and Jenn was secure in the knowledge that she remained the center of her mother’s world. She savored the attention like a warm blanket on a cool fall morning when she cuddled up next to her mother on their back porch. Then Carl entered their lives.

The adults stopped moving, and Jenn swiveled her head toward them in time to see her mother glance back at her. “Sweetie, are you okay? Does your leg still hurt?” She broke away from Carl and walked back toward her daughter, a somber sheen covered her overt happiness. When she reached Jenn, she squatted down in front of her and looked at her rash-covered shin. She touched it gently. Despite the pain, her mother’s warm touch made her feel instantly better, but Jenn didn’t betray her predominant emotion.

“It’s obviously bruised but there’s no more bleeding and I don’t think it’s swelling,” her mother said, her voice lapsing into the caretaker mode that always made Jenn feel warm inside her chest.

“It hurts,” Jenn pouted.

“Sweetie, it’s going to hurt for a while, but you’re fine otherwise. It’s just a bad scrape. Those rocks are nasty,” she said nodding back the way they had come.

“I want to go home.”

“Sweetie, we have to go back that way over those same rocks if we go home now.”

“I don’t care. I want to go home.”

Her mother sighed. Jenn recognized the sigh as one that she used to tamp down the emotional hailstorm that would come if her daughter kept pushing. She had pushed her mother past that point many times. She both feared and savored the reaction. Making her mother lose control satisfied her in a way that she had yet to understand. She liked the power she had in those moments like the bitter taste of blood after biting her lip.

“Come on, Jenny, you’ll feel better once we set up the campsite and you can lay in your sleeping bag,” Carl interjected still standing in the spot where her mother had left him. Jenn glowered at him beneath the wisps of blonde hair that had escaped her ponytail. She hated that he called her Jenny. She hated that he was here at all. She wanted him gone so that she had the totality of her mother’s attention.

Carl’s expression turned serious and he tugged his head to the side indicating that he wanted to keep moving forward. Her mother nodded and turned back to Jenn. “Sweetie, we have to keep going. We’re almost at the spot where we can set up camp.” She unfolded carefully to balance the backpack strapped to her shoulders and stood up taller than her 12-year-old daughter. Her mother’s dark hair, so unlike hers, swung freely as she righted herself on the rocky trail.

“I’m tired. I don’t want to walk anymore.”

“We’re almost there. Once you get a good night’s sleep, you’ll feel so much better,” her mother pleaded. “I promise.”

Her mother took a step forward but held out her hand to her only child. Jenn refused to take it. Her mother held her gaze for a moment longer before she sighed again and walked ahead without her daughter. Jenn twisted her face into an angry scowl as she watched her mom hold her hand out for Carl up ahead. Carl stared hard at Jenn, but her mother said something she couldn’t quite hear and they resumed walking ahead.

Her mom and her boyfriend grew smaller on the trail before Jenn finally caved and trotted forward in their wake. She didn’t run, but she shortened the gap enough to keep them close without appearing too cooperative.

She watched Carl from behind. His backpack jostled side-to-side with each step he took. He stood a good foot taller than her mother, but he was lumpy and balding. His hair, dark like her mother’s, receded in the front and from a spot on the crown of his head. He vainly tried to disguise his hair loss with long strands of hair that he combed over both gaps on his head. He looked goofy, unkempt. It didn’t help that he had a bushy, walrus-looking mustache that curved around his upper lip like a prickly caterpillar. He also wore round-frame glasses that darkened in the sunlight and looked like cheap sunglasses.

He strutted forward hand-in-hand with her mother. They hardly noticed her. Her mood simmered around Carl. She hated the way he dressed, too. Normally, he wore ill-fitting jeans and a ratty t-shirt that hung off his growing gut. He often sported a white pair of tennis shoes that, despite being scuffed and worn, shined brightly whenever he wore them, often outshining the fading white socks he wore. Jenn wrinkled her nose as she thought of all the times Carl had taken off his shoes in their living room to watch a movie with them and she could smell the taint of sweaty feet that filled the air.

She didn’t understand why her mother liked Carl. She could get better. Way better. This was the man that stuck out of all of the men her mom had dated. What did her mother see in Carl that she didn’t see in some of the others. She raffled through the ones she remembered, and almost all of them were better looking than Carl. She imagined her dad looked much better than Carl, too, but she could only imagine it since she had never seen him.

These thoughts beat a path through her mind as she reluctantly trod through the deepening sand that encircled the sweeping blast sight on the north side of Mt. St. Helens. She hated Carl. That much she knew. A bird call distracted her and pulled her attention toward the mountain. The trail clung to the hillside that had bore the brunt of the eruption many years ago, and as she came to a stop, the sand swallowed the tips of her shoes.

A lone black bird flew overhead and she watched it do a couple of loops under the steel-gray clouds that hung overhead. Most of the summer had been sunny and pleasant, but the day they had planned this camping trip had been unusually cloudy and threatening, an umbrage to the anger she felt, but something in the lonely call of the singular bird flipped her mood momentarily.

Carl had been good to her mother and to her too. He tried really hard to help her on her homework, and he picked her up from softball practice more often than not. He said goodnight to her every night and kissed her on the forehead in a way that she imagined her dad would do were he around. He made her mother laugh and smile, and he made her brim with a happiness that Jenn had not seen in her earliest memories of her mother. In many ways, he had done things that her dad would have done.

“How about there?” Carl said, puncturing the quiet that had fueled Jenn’s thoughts. She followed his chubby hand to the top of the sandy hill. Long grass waved above them in the light breeze that ran up the hill and danced circles around them.

“Looks good to me,” her mother replied, but Carl was already halfway up the short incline as if he’d made the decision and had only asked as a means to further their conversation.

Jenn watched her mother climb up the sandy hill, her feet slipping. She remained upright in spite of the loose footing and the pack that threatened to pull her backwards. Once she stepped on the plateau above Jenn, she turned toward her daughter. “See, I told you it wasn’t too far.” Her voice sounded apologetic, conciliatory.

Jenn trudged up the hill and dropped her backpack near the edge. She watched as Carl and her mother began to unravel their big packs on the grassy area beside her. “This is going to be a gorgeous view in the morning,” her mom cooed. She used that overly-pleasant voice that irritated a certain pre-teen.

Jenn spun back around toward the mountain. It looked glum under the stark grayness that swallowed the sky. The pale earth that clung to its sides looked like the skin of a dead person, or at least how Jenn imagined a dead person’s skin would look. She squinted into the distance through the gaping hole left by the eruption.

“Where’s the cone?” she asked aloud.

At first, no answer came behind her, but before she could ask again, Carl replied, “It’s there. We just have to get closer.”

“Can we get closer?”

“Of course.”

“Can I go there now?”

“Hold on a moment and we’ll all go,” her mother replied before Carl could answer.

Jenn thought that she’d challenge her mother and beg to go by herself, but the gaping hole in the mountain looked lonely and scary in a way that unsettled her. The whole area around the mountain was beautiful, but the mountain itself was something else. She had seen the video of the eruption and its aftermath, and she had read stories of that day in May 1980, but it felt like ancient history to her since she was born 17 years later. Nonetheless, the destruction that happened then left her in awe, scared her. She suddenly felt an irrational fear that the volcano would erupt at that very moment and that she and her mother would be eviscerated like that old man who had lived on the lake that had sat at the base of the mountain before it erupted.

She felt a hand on her shoulder. “You ready to climb closer?” her mother asked.

She nodded, and Carl appeared in front of her and began the trek down to the mountain. He leaned back against the downward-sloping incline to keep his balance making his gut stick out even more. Her mother fell in behind him and she nipped her mother’s heels as she joined the winding path downhill. After they reached the bottom of the hill, it began a long arc upward. Jenn bounced up the hill despite the irritation on her shin, but Carl and her mother labored as each step up revealed another and then another. The climb wasn’t particularly steep, but it was enough to wear down an adult.

Finally, they reached the top of the gap in the north side. Jenn arrived first and stood up straight looking into the mouth of the volcano. Carl joined her moments later and bent over to catch his breath. He wheezed so loud and dramatically that Jenn thought he would throw up, but he gathered himself enough to help her mother onto the ledge that teetered on the edge of the caldera.

“Wow, it’s so beautiful!” her mother exclaimed. Jenn ignored her; she just stared into the giant bowl formed by the eruption. The landscape looked foreign, like Mars, if its soil were gray. The cone stood off-center in a sea of pallid rocks. The breeze that had swirled around them earlier had fallen still as if the cavernous caldera had swallowed it. Jenn felt insignificant in that spot, like a grain of sand in an endless beach. Despite standing next to her mother and Carl, a loneliness overwhelmed her, a familiar feeling that made her wonder about her place in the world and whether she really belonged in it.

“What do you think, Sweetie?” her mother asked breaking away from a conversation with Carl that Jenn had largely tuned out.

“It’s lonely,” Jenn replied. Her mother’s smile faded as she turned from her daughter and looked into the mountain again.

“It is, but we’re here with you.”

“I know, but it’s still lonely.” She took a deep breath. “And scary.”

“Don’t be such a downer. It’s beautiful and amazing at the same time,” Carl interjected.

Jenn frowned at him, but he seemed undeterred in his enjoyment. She remembered that she hated him, and as he stood there on the ledge overlooking the vast gap in the mountain, she wondered what would happen if she pushed him over the edge. She eyed the sea of rocks beneath them rippling with sharp edges. If Carl were gone, her mother would have no choice but to return her attention to her only daughter. His deep voice shook her free of her sordid fantasy.

“Do you know the Indian legend behind Mt. St. Helens?” Carl asked. She shuddered to the present and looked at him, but he kept his focus on her mother.

“No, tell me,” her mother replied. Her smile grew as she looked at Carl.

Carl looked at Jenn. “What about you?”

Jenn pursed her lips. She wasn’t in a mood for one of Carl’s stories, but she relented. “Yeah, sure.” Carl seemed very pleased with her response.

“The Puyallup Indians tell a story of two braves who fell in love with a beautiful maiden named Loowit. They were powerful and courageous and they both wanted the love of the maiden,” Carl began. He paused for a moment before he continued. “They were gravely jealous of each other because they thought the other had the attention of the fair maiden. Well, both of them couldn’t have her, so they fought over her destroying villages and killing people in the wake of their battles. Finally, a great Chief, angered by their behavior, decided to punish the braves and the maiden, too. He cast a spell that turned all three into stone. The two braves became Mt. Adams to the north and Mt. Hood to the south. Loowit became Mt. St. Helens. Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood both look toward St. Helens in perpetual desire for something they can never have.”

“Oh, that’s such a sad story,” her mother said.

Jenn had followed Carl’s gestures to the north and south looking for the mountains he had named, but the clouds obscured her view on the horizon. “It’s a stupid fable,” Jenn said.

Her mother looked at her like she was offended. “Jenn, don’t be so cynical! I love Indian legends. They’re always so in tune with the natural surroundings.”

Jenn bit her tongue and returned her gaze into the gap below. Her mother and Carl chatted beside her but she ignored them. Instead, she thought of the story Carl had just told. What must it have been like to have been Loowit? Why was she punished because of the behavior of two stupid boys? It made no sense. None of it did. It was silly to think that someone could be turned to stone, much less a mountain, but it wasn’t silly that a girl would suffer because of the actions of a boy. That really happened. All of the time. She kicked the earth with her right boot, and tiny rocks skittered over the edge and bounced down the mountain. She vowed to never let it happen to her. Ever.

The Editing Struggle

There are many phases to writing a novel. There’s the moment when an idea strikes, often at inopportune times, where a surge of inspiration can stop you in your tracks and make you wish you could spend the day fleshing out your story. Then, there’s the joy of putting those first few words on the page when the momentum really starts to pick up like a heavy boulder rolling down a hill and the words just fly from your fingertips as if the story is writing itself. The first draft is particularly enjoyable since it’s about discovering the characters for the first time and really getting to know them. Yes, there are the occasional stops and starts as the story trundles through the middle, but overall, the first draft is exciting and thrilling like a close ballgame that isn’t decided until the last few seconds of play.

I wish I could say the same about editing. Unfortunately, editing is by far the longest and most important part of writing. It’s also the most tedious and least exciting part of writing a novel. Many a novel has died on the vine in the editing phase. The first draft is about getting your story on the page and telling it in the way you think makes it most enjoyable for readers. Editing is about taking that lump of half-formed clay and turning it into a beautiful piece of pottery worthy of display. Sometimes, after much spinning and forming, you just want to pound the clay into some malformed lump and toss it as far away as possible. Editing can make you hate your own story because you’re so sick of working on it.

There are not shortcuts in editing. It’s basically a grind-it-out task that, if done correctly, is worth the Herculean effort, but the payoff doesn’t make it any less exasperating. I’m on my third re-write of Into the Caldera. The first draft came easy; it only took three months to get the basic story down from foreboding beginning to the harrowing ending. The problem is the story didn’t really work in that first draft form. The characters were sharp-edged or too flimsy to be likable. The dramatic backdrop was the most memorable part of that first draft. While I wanted the scenes around Mt. St. Helens to capture the stark nature of that almost alien landscape, I also wanted the characters to be memorable as well. After all, the story was about jealousy and revenge, something the magnificent mountain could neither feel nor embody beyond the Indian legend that is shared in the book.

My first round of major edits sought to soften the sharp edges and fill in the gaps for the characters, but instead of turning my half-formed lump of clay into a pretty vase, I turned it into a bowl made by a third-grader in his first go-round on the pottery wheel. It was a little lop-sided, but if I turned my head sideways, it looked upright. Maybe. Sort of. Okay, maybe not.

Now, I’m on my second round of major edits, and it has been a struggle to keep my faith in the story. What had once been a surefire story of revenge and redemption has morphed into a story mostly about perils of jealousy. I don’t know if it still has the oomph that once ran through the story like a bright red line cuts through a page of black letters. The original story had that stark craziness to it that kept the reader thinking “WTF?,” but it required readers to ignore some important questions that I hadn’t really worked out in that first draft. As I worked out those questions, it changed the very nature of the story.

Into the Caldera is not in my wheelhouse in terms of genre. I had stepped away from the literary genre to try a psychological thriller thinking that it would expand my writing capabilities. To some extent it has, but the irony is that as I rewrite each part, it becomes more and more literary and much less thriller. This is not what I had in mind when I first conceived the story. I guess I’ll have to wait and see what the editing struggle begets.

Then There Were Five

We added a new dog, a four-month-old Boston Terrier, to our family this past weekend. Her name is Luna, and she’s tiny and cute and all of the things you’d expect from a sweet little puppy. She gets along with our nine-year-old Boston, Pearl, who has only had to put her in her place a few times since she arrived. I think it’s clear who’s boss in that hierarchy of two.

I’ve always had dogs in my life except for two brief stints – when I was in college and when I lived in China. They’re as much a part of my life as any human relationship. From Sam, who occupies the furthest reaches of my memories from my childhood, to Pearl and Luna today, I could chronicle my life based on the dog or dogs I had at the time. Growing up, my dogs were mostly mutts my Dad acquired from a guy with whom he worked. They were outside dogs, all of them, and they came and went with the perils of being outdoor dogs living along a rural, two-lane road. If the speeding cars didn’t get them, something else did, but I never lost my love for dogs in spite of the heart-wrenching losses.

My kids have only ever known Pearl as their dog because she’s been with our family for seven years, and they were young when we she arrived. Since our dogs are indoor dogs, they are less prone to the inexplicable disappearances or tragic endings that often beset my dogs when I was a kid. Pearl has taught my kids kindness and responsibility, something that I also learned from my dogs as a child. Most importantly, she’s given them a sense of joy that only dogs can deliver. When they had a rough day, Pearl was there to lick them and snuggle with them and make it all better. When they needed someone to talk to or to dress up for an impromptu tea party, Pearl was there. It’s hard not to smile when you look into that face with the big ears and bulging eyes atop the short nose and drooping jowls. Her solemn and serious look belies an innate sweetness that defines her.

She has grown with our family, and as the years have slipped by, she has been aging gracefully. Despite being in her tenth year, she still gets excited when we go on a car ride. The gray on her muzzle and the occasional missed jump are the only indications of the passing of time. She’s gone from being the patient puppy (yes, there is such a thing and Pearl exudes it) to the grand dame of our family, a dog so spoiled and well-loved that her life has to be the envy of dogs everywhere.

It is in those few moments that I recognize her age that I lament the fact that dogs don’t live longer. Even removed from the dangers of living outdoors, dogs have such limited time. While it could be a tragedy, it’s also a gift. Making the most of that limited time is the essence of any life, dogs or otherwise, and we’ll certainly make the most of it. Luna, the fifth member of our family, reminds us of Pearl’s younger years, and she promises to bring many more happy moments to our family. We’ll enjoy every moment.

Perspective

At some point when we reach our late 20s, our perspectives harden like freshly-poured concrete forming a sidewalk or a driveway. From there it’s unlikely that our perspective will change much despite evidence that suggests it should. As we get older, confirmation bias stretches its dark tentacles deeper into our brains and squeezes harder making it even more difficult to shift our perspectives. Everything that supports our view of life is acknowledged; everything else is ignored. I imagine there’s an evolutionary reason for this. We keep doing what has kept us alive thus far, and if we’ve made it this far, then we must be doing something right. Right?

As a writer I spend a lot of time observing what’s happening around me, how people are reacting or not reacting to the world around them. I play a game of “What if?” quite often as I’m always thinking about story ideas. I’m inherently a skeptical person, so when I’m presented with rigid dogma or thoughtless conventional “wisdom,” I habitually ask myself “What if the opposite were true?” The most interesting stories often lie at the intersection of two different perspectives, or as I like to muse, two different realities.

When I reached my 40s, I realized something had subtly happened to me over the prior decade, something that had not really dawned on me until it was too late. I had lost touch with the rest of the world in a way I couldn’t explain much like flotsam on the beach gets buffeted by the waves until it is dragged out into the middle of the vast ocean far from any land. Age does that to you. The world belongs to the young, a collective consciousness that surges into the mainstream and spits you out the other side like a remnant of a bygone era. What was once a fresh and engaging perspective becomes tired and worn.

Writing allows me to assume different perspectives, to step into another’s skin and try it on for size. It also forces me to consider what it’s like for someone else in a very real way, not in some superficial attempt at empathy. To make the story authentic, I have to be deeply thoughtful of perspective. How would it feel to be this character? How would this character react to this situation. The opportunity to do this is rewarding in its own right, liberating even. I feel subtle shifts in my own perspective because assuming another’s is so taxing that I cannot help but be affected. Is it possible to break free of our own constraints?

Years ago I moved my family to China for my job. Before I interviewed for the job, I had never been to mainland China. My vision of the nation was exactly what you’d expect from an American, exactly what is displayed on the myopic television news. I imagined staunch Communists parading in the streets in abysmal outfits drooling the party line, but the reality was anything but that. Instead, I found an engaging culture with a rich history bursting at the seams. Sure, there’s the creepy big brother government lurking in the background, but that wasn’t the only thing that defined the nation. My perspective shifted. Being there and putting myself in the shoes of Chinese citizens changed my perspective. The same thing happens when I write.

It is possible to change my perspective in spite of the gravity of confirmation bias. I’ve come to the conclusion that only a fool would go through life and not change his perspective based on new evidence, even if it were anathema to him at another point in time. The world belongs to the young, but even a middle-aged writer can test the waters of something new. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Concept: The Castle on the Hill

The first time her husband, Alfred, punched her, Anna Modena stayed on the floor for a while, not because he followed up the punch with a swift kick to her rib cage but because she couldn’t believe what had happened. She’d been punched and kicked before. Her father had done it plenty when she was growing up, but she had never expected her father’s ghost to come alive in the man she had married. She had escaped one horror to land in an atrocity. She couldn’t win.

After her wedding night, she learned to adjust like she had adjusted with her mercurial father. She was just 17 years old then, but she felt much older when it came to rules of the world around her. She knew that she couldn’t talk back to a man, that she should do what she was told the first time, and that she should always be on guard for a punch. These rules helped her stay on her feet and kept her alive, but it was her imagination that kept her sane.

She didn’t care much for anything except for her daughters. Those four girls provided the only welcoming light in the dim, double-wide trailer they rented at the end of Victoria Lane in Norwich, Alabama, a small town wedged against the northern edge of Interstate 20 just west of the state line between Alabama and Georgia. Megan was the oldest at 13 and reminded her of herself when she was young except that she had stayed in school and planned to go to college to be a doctor. Brittany, a child whose conception still brought Anna nightmares, was 12, just ten months younger than her older sister. Christina and Emma likewise were close in age only separated by 18 months at 10 and 8, but Emma’s difficult birth had put an end to Anna’s child-bearing days at the ripe old age of 23. She didn’t know what else she was good for and neither did Alfred.

The afternoon sun pushed through the heavy curtains in her living room exposing the dusty air that surrounded her as she sat in the old chair that formed one end of the semi-circle in front of the TV. The vinyl-covered cushion sighed under her weight as she shifted to get more comfortable. A man and woman argued on the talk show that played quietly before her, but she mostly ignored it. The girls would be home soon. That brief interlude between the girls arriving home from school and her departure for her job was her favorite part of the day. With Alfred at his day job, she’d have the girls to herself as she did every day during the school year.

A large vehicle grunted outside, but it didn’t slow down in front of her driveway, so she knew the bus had yet to arrive. Disappointment washed over her. If the bus was early, she’d have more time with her girls before she left. Instead, she feared it’d be late, and her precious time with them would be rushed. Finally, the roar of an exasperated engine surged and stopped near her mailbox. The exhale of the brakes gave Anna hope that she’d soon see her children. The bus roared to life again and ambled away from the stop, and as the noise of the vehicle faded into the distance, she could hear the animated cackles of young kids talking and laughing as they walked down the main street through the neighborhood.

Tiny, muffled voices arrived at her door, and Anna tensed as if she were waiting for intruders. She still felt overwhelmed with joy when her daughters returned home even though it happened like this every day. She missed them. She hated not being able to spend the evenings with them like the other mothers did, but her job put food on the table. She waited.

The door knob glinted in the dull light as the door swung open and Christina poked her head around its metal edge. The sunlight from outside enshrouded her like an angel descending from heaven. “Mama?”

“Chrissy! How was school?”

A smile wrapped around Christina’s face when she finally saw her mother sitting in the living room. “Okay,” she replied in the universal response she gave to every inquiry about her school day.

“Mama!” Emma shrieked as she trailed her sister through the door.

Both girls ran to Anna and wrapped their arms around her. She kissed the tops of their heads and hugged them close.

“Do you want a snack?” she asked. They shook their heads eagerly. Anna stood up slowly. The bruise on her left hip screamed at her and made her catch her weight on her right side. She almost tumbled over, but she steadied herself on right leg shuffling toward the tiny kitchen with her youngest daughters in tow.

She peered out the front window as she walked to the kitchen. The next bus would arrive soon she thought as she grabbed packets of crackers from the mostly-empty pantry and sat them before her eager daughters. As she poured them some milk, she heard a bus rumble to a stop outside her house again. Its air brakes hissed in a momentary pause before it rolled on down the street. Anna tensed and took a deep breath.

It took longer than usual for Brittany to open the door. She stepped through it quickly shutting out the flash of outside light before Anna’s eyes had a chance to adjust. Brittany had a grim look on her face as if her backpack contained some unbearable weight. She said nothing to anyone as she made a beeline for the bedroom she had once shared with her older sister. Her youngest daughters stayed quiet, but Anna could feel their eyes on her.

“Finish your milk,” she said finally. “And clean up your mess.”

The crinkling of the plastic wrappers seemed louder than it should have been as the girls busied themselves with cleaning up. Anna sighed and returned to the chair in the living room relaxing for one last moment before she had to leave for work. The girls joined her and sat on the floor before the TV.

“Why don’t you turn it to a cartoon?” Anna suggested. Christina gladly obliged and the girls sunk, zombie-like, into the odd world of a cartoon that Anna didn’t recognize. Anna smiled at her girls basking in the glow of the TV. Emma peeked over at her at one point but quickly returned her attention to the cartoon.

Anna wished she could sit there with them until it came time to put them to bed, a luxury she only experienced when one of them was sick, but work would beckon soon, and she’d trudge off down the street to catch the bus into town while Brittany put herself and her sisters to bed before Alfred came home. The monotony of her life weighed on her, threatened to pull her under. She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment and it all disappeared, not her daughters, but everything else. This other life, the one she wanted, existed out there. It kept her sane for she would otherwise crumble to the earth amid the sea of insults and bruises and despair.

A heavy knock rattled the thin door on the trailer. Anna opened her eyes to see the dust swirling in the light that broke through the curtains near the door. Christina and Emma looked back at her as if they had never heard an unwanted knock at the door, their expressions startled and uncertain. Anna winced at the pain in her throbbing hip. She stood up and stutter-stepped before she steadied herself and walked to the door.

When she opened the door, a short, stocky man dressed in all black stood before her. He wore a baseball cap with an unrecognizable logo on it and reflective sunglasses that captured the startled and puzzled expression that Anna felt at that moment.

“Good afternoon, ma’am. Is Mr. Modena home?”

“No, he’s at work. I’m his wife. Can I help you?”

The man tightened his lips across his face as if he were upset that Alfred was not home.

“Please give this to Mr. Modena. It’s very urgent.”

“What is it?” Anna tentatively took the paper from his hand. She looked at it as she waited for him to explain it. The tiny words crammed onto the pages befuddled her.

“It’s an eviction notice. You’re six months behind on your rent. The landlord has filed a motion to evict you.”

The rest of his words failed to reach her. She stood there watching him speak, his stern jaw flexing each time he mouthed a word. She felt like she was watching a muted TV. He finally pivoted away from her and returned to the SUV he had parked on the street. She wavered in place for a moment before she stepped back into the comforting darkness of her living room. She shut the door behind her. The girls, enthralled by the cartoon, ignored their mother. Anna took a deep breath and walked into the kitchen where she deposited the notice in the trash. It was time to leave for work.

 

A Writer Must Read

I often tell my kids that they have to read to learn. There’s simply no way around it. This is especially true when they’re no longer in school and they don’t have teachers and assignments forcing them to read. While they may dream of a day when they don’t have a long list of reading assignments, the truth is that they will (or should) spend the rest of their lives reading. Hopefully, they’ll enjoy it. My wife and I began reading to them almost from the moment we brought them home from the hospital, and over the years that’s turned into family reading time each night before bedtime. As a result it’s not unusual to see my kids lumbering around the house with a book in hand without any assignment hanging over their head.

While most of my reading is done for pure pleasure, as a writer I must read. One of the most salient nuggets of advice Stephen King delivers in his memoir On Writing is just that: A writer must read. It’s necessary to get better. You have to observe the craft in its finest form (or not so finest) to really understand how to improve your own work. There’s no way around it, nor are there any shortcuts. If you’re writing and not reading, you’re limiting your potential as a writer.

Reading is what brought me to writing in the first place. Way back in fourth grade when I pulled Richard Adam’s Watership Down from the top shelf of the musty, old school library and checked it out, I started down the path to being a writer. That book subsumed my imagination and took me to a different world. I loved it so much that I read it twice (it remains the only book I’ve read more than once). After I read that book, I decided I wanted to create wonderful stories like that. I wanted to become a writer. Three decades later I took that first step toward being a writer, but by then, I had read many more books and learned much more about writing.

Every time I pick up a book, I learn something. I learn new words, new ways of describing something, or a new approach to creating a scene or imagery. I’m currently reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The way she creates a scene is remarkable – a prime example of “show, don’t tell.” Her use of imagery and words puts the reader right in the middle of her stark, apocalyptic world, which is equal parts horrifying and mesmerizing. The novel spans several decades, but she manages the time shifts expertly so that the reader doesn’t get whipsawed by the jumps along the timeline. I’ve learned a lot from reading her book, and it will make me a better writer.

I could go on and on with examples of how I’ve learned about the craft of writing from reading. Wally Lamb taught me the true art of character development with his books that often delve deep into the psyche of his protagonists (see She’s Come Undone). Khalid Hosseini taught me how to bring the setting alive and make it just as much a part of the book as the main characters (see A Thousand Splendid Suns). Jonathan Franzen, a true literary genius, taught me how to weave a beautiful story from the seemingly mundane interactions of the characters (see The Corrections). His stories aren’t for thrill seekers, but they are beautiful in that they capture the emotional reality of life vs. some fantastic version of it.

There are so many books to read, and so little time, especially as I’m trying to squeeze in time to write myself. Nevertheless, I will always make time for reading, whether it’s just before bedtime or on the train to work, because reading is necessary for writing. A writer must read.