The Things We Cannot Keep – Chapter 2

The cabin was originally built in 1908 by my paternal great-grandfather. It had been improved and expanded several times over the years, and at one point it had been the only cabin on Baker Lake. My great-grandfather had owned all of the land surrounding the lake, but he sold some of the land to fund other business ventures including the bank at which my grandfather and father had worked. My grandfather finished selling all of the remaining acreage save for the vast plot around the cabin on the west end of the enormous lake. The size of the family plot ensured that we’d never see another inhabitant around us, but most of the forest land that bordered our land had been donated to the National Forest Service decades ago by the estate of a wealthy landowner who had passed before he had had the chance to do much development. Some smaller landowners built a couple of cabins on the other side of the lake next to the winding, tar-and-gravel road that circumscribed the lake, but that was it. Our cabin was the perfect place to escape the world. Anything and nothing could happen and no one would ever know.

Electrical lines had been extended to the cabin in the early 1970s before I was born and before our father started bringing us here for our annual summer trips. Dad had probably done more to expand and improve the cabin than his father or grandfather had ever done. He added the second floor loft and another bedroom on the main floor. He had expanded the kitchen and made the living room much bigger with a grand fire place to match. He had also torn down the old porch and made it into a wrap-around structure that extended all the way out and over the lake for several feet. He had kept the rustic feel of the cabin while giving it a touch of the modern luxuries of the time.

As a kid, I loved the sound of the gravel popping beneath our tires when we turned off the road and snaked our way up the driveway toward the cabin. To this day, that sound reminds me of long summer days jumping off the dock into the cool lake water, as cliche a childhood memory as one could have. The cabin smelled old like a musty coat stored in an attic for years. The smell assaulted my nose on the first day at the cabin every year, but then, it faded as if the lake water we tracked from the dock to the kitchen and living room washed it away.

The sturdy cabin had survived decades in the withering environs of the Pacific Northwest. Snow piled up in the winter beating down its cedar shake roof. A constant light rain seeped into every crack and crevice of its walls during most of the year except for the glorious few months of the year when the sun warmed and dried its wooden walls. Even an occasional earthquake had rattled its foundation, but it withstood all of this, and every summer, when Dad yanked the wheel of the old Ford Bronco into that last bend of the driveway, I gleefully looked up at the expressive face of the cabin with the anticipation usually reserved for Christmas morning. The large windows above the porch gleamed at me, and the uneven porch roof line almost seemed like a smile. I used to think the cabin looked like a walrus smiling down at me from the last crook in the driveway. I couldn’t think of a better way to end the summer. I think Hank felt the same way because we’d both dart out of the car and rush to the cabin despite our parents’ pleas to help unload the car.

When we stayed here, we truly felt like a family even if that wasn’t the reality of our lives outside of Baker Lake. Mom and Dad acted like the ideal couple they portrayed back home in Portland, a mirage that belied the tension and mistrust that I never realized was there until much later. Hank, being older, had a much better sense of it, and given his impetuous nature, he often played them against one another.

Once, when I was eight or nine years old before Hank went totally off the rails, I remember being in the bedroom I shared with Hank, unable to sleep. I could hear Hank snoring, but all else was quiet. The windows were open because the unusually hot summer had overstayed its welcome, but a cool breeze rolled in off the lake buffeting the curtain sheers like some sort of Halloween ghost. The breeze felt good, especially since my bed stood right in its path, but my attention focused on the end of the dock where my parents sat next to each other in two of the Adirondack chairs. I could see their dark forms and hear the slight murmurs of their idle chat. I couldn’t clearly hear what they were saying, only one or two words traversed the space between us, but their voices were calm and steady. I watched as my dad leaned in and kissed my mom as the curtain shear batted the window. They held that kiss for the longest time. When he pulled away, my mom scooted closer to him and put her head on his shoulder. As much as I remember, they didn’t say another word in the swoon of the ambient light reflecting off the lake. I fell asleep with that comforting image of them in my head.

After Dad died, Mom did her best to keep the cabin up. She had mostly just updated the furnishings and appliances and decorated in a way that was clearly her style as far as I could tell. I hadn’t been to the cabin since Dad was alive, but Robbie had continued coming up here with Mom for many years afterward even while he was going to college on the East Coast. I couldn’t bear to come here without Dad, so I stayed away.

Eventually, Robbie stopped coming to the cabin too, and Mom made the trek on her own. She spent a lot of time up here before her health turned on her and she could no longer handle the drive. As far as I know, it had been four or five years since anyone had stepped foot in the cabin. The dust that covered everything told the same story.

Neither Hank nor Robbie had wanted the upstairs bedroom, so Hank took the one we had stayed in as kids and Robbie took his old bedroom. I was stuck in the bedroom that Mom and Dad had always taken when we stayed here. It felt weird being in that bedroom. I’d been in it plenty of times as a kid, but now as an adult, it felt like I was trespassing somehow.

Downstairs had grown quiet once Hank shut the door to his bedroom. He’d been loud and obnoxious after several beers, slurring his words and stumbling about as we had walked inside from the dock. I had said goodnight, but Hank just mumbled something incomprehensible and slammed the door. Robbie cut his eyes at me before he waved a wordless goodnight and clicked the door shut behind him after he flipped off the living room light. The tiny lamp in the loft failed to shine much light into the velvety darkness below. I stood there for a moment leaning on the loft railing looking at the blackened space my brothers had occupied. The ghosts of Hank and me trampled through the living room with muddy feet much to our mom’s protest. Robbie was so much younger than us that I hardly remembered him being here when we were kids.

After listening to Hank prattle on for much of the evening, I welcomed the silence. The long day and the tension had worn on me, and I felt tired, but when I turned out the lamp and lay back on the bed, my mind raced circles around me. The full moon brightened the room and gave the shadows a soft edge. I turned away from the windows, the sheers no match for the moon. I considered closing the curtains, but I wanted to wake up to the sunrise like I had on so many summer mornings as a kid. I turned over a few times before I sat up and stared into yawning space of the loft. I could hear the refrigerator humming below, but no other sound greeted my ears.

Finally, I got out of bed and walked over toward one of the big windows. I parted the sheer and glared out onto the dock below. The three Adirondack chairs sat near the water’s edge, dark shadows in the bright moonlight. They were empty of course, but for a moment, I thought I saw Mom and Dad sitting down there, fingers intertwined leaning into each other as they watched the ripples of the lake bat the moonlight. I blinked a few times and they were gone, but something heavy weighed on my chest.

I wondered what they would make of the three of us here at the cabin again. The last time we were all here at the same time, Robbie was still a little boy. Hank had only begun to cause trouble, and I still idolized my older brother in spite of the cracks that had formed in our relationship.

The memories rushed back to me again. Mom and Dad were young again. Robbie was an ambling toddler whom we had to keep away from the edge of the dock. Hank stood tall and lanky with the awkwardness of a teenager, and I was the fawning younger brother who wanted to do everything his older brother did. That time seemed simpler and happier despite the complications that were brewing, but maybe I just felt that way because that’s the way everyone views their youth. Things always seem simpler and easier when you’re young because adulthood is ugly and messy and burdened with the weight of experience.

A young Hank chased me to the edge of the dock below. I jumped in the air and hugged my legs to my chest before I cannonballed into the water. He slid to a stop at the edge of the dock laughing along with me as he teased me from up high. I swam further away from the dock taunting him between my huge gulps of air. Mom sensed we were getting out of hand and gave us a warning. Hank ignored her. He always did. He jumped into the water after me, and I swam frantically to the other side of the dock. I heaved myself up onto the dock and ran away just as Hank tried to grab my ankle from the water below. My laughter almost toppled me, but I made it to Dad’s side under the porch awning before Hank could pounce. Hank stopped a few feet from us and glared at me.

“Henry, will you tell them to stop horsing around before one of them gets hurt?” my Mom pleaded from the chair next to Dad’s.

Dad lifted his head up and looked at us from behind his mirrored sunglasses. I couldn’t tell, but he had been napping in the shade of the porch. “Ellen, boys will be boys. Let ‘em have fun.” His voice was groggy but firm. My mom sighed her displeasure and shot Hank and me a stern look. I made a beeline for the edge of the dock again and dove into the water. This time Hank came in right after me, but the game of pursuit abruptly ended when we saw a duck on the edge of the lake and decided to pursue it. Those summers were like that, joyous and meandering and seemingly never-ending.

The Things We Cannot Keep – Chapter 3

I watched the big windows in the bedroom light up with the sunrise. The moon had kept the room bright all through the night, but as it receded the dim shimmers of dawn clawed across the Cascade Mountains in the east and then brightened into a swirl of pinks and oranges before the sun crowned the jagged mountains. I tossed and turned in the early morning hoping to find some semblance of sleep before the daylight pulled me from the bed, but I threw in the towel as my mind raced around all of the scenarios that had led us to this point.

I sat up on the edge of the bed sliding the balls of my feet on the cool hardwood floor. All was quiet in the cabin save for the usual creaks of an old house. I stood up and stretched and walked over to the windows still aglow in the soft sunrise. Outside, a glorious September day began to unfold. The sky, clear as far as I could see, seemed to sparkle in the yawning daylight. A cool breeze ducked into the crack of the window and chilled my legs. It felt good, relaxing. For the first time in a long time, I felt good or maybe I just felt different so far removed from my life in San Francisco.

The lake simmered beneath my window, a mist coiled across its surface as if it were a giant cauldron. The Adirondack chairs still sat at the edge of the dock, empty but watching over the peaceful lake. The serenity of it all brought back many good memories from decades ago.

Dad liked to fish off the dock in the early morning. There were many mornings when I spent time here as a kid that I’d wake up and find him sitting on the edge of the dock in one of the chairs with the fishing rod wedged between his knees. He’d have a cup of coffee resting on the arm of the chair that was so hot I could see the steam rising from its mouth. He’d lightly tug the rod and then take a sip of coffee and repeat the movements over and over until a fish grabbed his line. On some mornings he’d catch a fish or two, and on others, his bait would go unnoticed. On those mornings when the fish ignored him, he’d curse his luck as he reeled in his line for the last time. He’d down the last of his coffee or toss the remnants into the lake. Then, he’d lean his rod against the back wall of the porch and slink inside the cabin to take a nap.

Dad never said much while he sat there fishing. Sometimes, I’d tiptoe outside, he hated it when we made too much noise on the dock when he was fishing, and sit on the gray planks next to him. He’d say “good morning,” but not much else. I’d glance at him from time to time, but mostly, I’d stare out over the glassy lake watching his line cut through it like a surgical knife making a precision cut.

He looked so serious when he was fishing as if he were studying the countenance of the lake for clues about where the fish were. In all my childhood memories on the dock at Baker Lake, he was younger than I am now, but I always noticed something about him that suggested time was slipping away from him like the crinkles at the corner of his eyes, the graying hair that flared back from his temples, or the loss of firmness in his chin. I noticed these things. I don’t know why, but they jumped out to me even when I was too young to appreciate their meaning. Of course, as I got older, I learned what troubled him most. Time makes you irrelevant. One day you wake up and you no longer matter.

I heard the door squeak and clank shut beneath me. I looked down from the window and saw Hank shuffling toward the lake. He still wore his t-shirt and pajama bottoms and his feet were bare. His disheveled hair looked like a crashing wave atop his head. He had a beer in his hand and took a sip as he walked toward the chairs. I watched as he plopped down into one of the chairs on the edge and leaned back. He took a long swig of the beer and sat it down on the arm of the chair. He sat motionless looking out over the lake.

I watched him there for a few seconds, stunned by how much he resembled Dad. Replace the beer with a coffee cup and put a fishing rod in his lap, and Hank could be Dad from all those years ago. Nostalgia gnawed at my gut, but I pushed it down with all of the other things that I didn’t want to feel and grabbed my phone to check the time. It was just after seven in the morning. I put on my old Stanford hoodie and hurried down the stairs.

Hank hadn’t bothered to start any coffee. Maybe he didn’t drink it anymore, but more likely, he didn’t think of anyone but himself. I started the coffee maker before I walked out onto the dock to join Hank. He didn’t turn around when the door clanked shut behind me, and I didn’t make any effort to be quiet. My footsteps thumped across the old planks, the wood rough beneath my bare feet.

I sidled into the chair next to him. “Good morning,” I said as I sat down.

He kept his eyes on the lake for a moment longer. Then, he glanced at me and replied, “Good morning.” He took a sip of his beer and returned his focus to the lake.

“A little early for a beer don’t you think?”

He looked at the can as if he were reading the label for the first time. He rolled it around in the palm of his hand. “Aren’t you a little old to be wearing a college sweatshirt?”

I laughed, and Hank did too, but only half-heartedly as if it weren’t really a joke.

“Are you supposed to be drinking alcohol?”

“No one told me I can’t.” Hank seemed aggravated by my suggestion. “Why did you buy it if you thought I couldn’t drink it?”

“I didn’t. That’s Robbie’s beer. He brought it.”

Hank considered this and took another sip from the can. He looked at me defiantly for a moment and then resumed his soliloquy with the lake. The steam continued to evaporate on its surface in the increasing warmth of the sunrise. I watched a bird fly across the lake shuddering its wings above the water.

“Do you want some coffee?” I asked sensing that the coffee maker must be done by now.

Hank considered it. “Actually, would you grab me another beer?”

I shot him a look but he kept his eyes on the lake. I relented. “Sure.”

Hank remained in the same catatonic trance when I returned to the edge of the dock with a cold beer in one hand and a hot coffee in the other. I shoved the beer in front of him and that broke his trance. He thanked me before he popped it open and took a long swig. I sipped my coffee and kept the cup in my lap as I sat back in the chair. A bird whooped on the edge of the lake. I heard a flutter of wings but I couldn’t see anything take flight. A slight breeze rustled my hair. Hank remained silent.

The sky ripened into a deep blue above us. The mist went about its merry way across the surface of the lake receding to the tall grass at the edge. The sun cast a warm, golden glow onto the dock and the back of the cabin. Save for the flap of wings or the erratic call of a bird, the world around us was muted. Normally, I’d relish the silence, a break from my usual hectic days, but here, sitting next to my older brother, an enigma in his own right, I could only anticipate what would or needed to be said next. I formed one-sided conversations in my head, but none seemed a good entry into my brother’s world. Finally, Hank relieved me of my internal anguish.

“I wish things were different,” he said.

I turned to look at him, but he remained focused on the lake. I wasn’t sure how to respond, but my hesitation didn’t discourage him from continuing.

“I wish Dad were here so I could take back my last words to him. I really do. I was angry then. I felt like a disappointment, not just to him, but to myself as well. It put me in a bad place. After all that happened, my biggest regret is what I said to him when they dragged me from the courtroom.”

His words floated across the lake and stared back at us, stark and unflinching. I’d been careful not to mention Dad during the drive up, and I had advised Robbie to do the same. He had reluctantly agreed despite his contention that Hank was a grown man and had to take his lumps. I’d argued that he’d taken his lumps for the past 20 years and that what he needed now was his family, or what was left of it.

“We all make mistakes,” I replied. I tried to think of Hank as one of my patients to keep myself steady and calm, but I could feel the old emotions rising up in my chest like the remnant of a greasy meal. I swallowed the words I wanted to say.

Hank nodded as if he had come to the slow realization that what I said was true. “Some more than others,” he said. He took another sip from his beer and then crushed the can between his thick fingers. He balanced the crumpled can on the arm of the chair.

The door behind us squeaked open and clanked shut. The sound reverberated past us and across the lake. It startled me in the moment, but I shook it off as Robbie’s heavy footsteps approached.

“You guys are up early,” Robbie said as he stepped in front of us and took the chair on the other side of Hank.

“What time is it?” Hank asked.

“8:30-ish,” Robbie replied as he glanced at the screen of his phone. He sat his phone on the arm of the chair and looked at us expectantly. Unlike us, he had combed his hair and changed out of his pajamas.

“That’s not early,” Hank said.

“It is for me,” Robbie said.

Hank laughed. “I can’t believe you’re a grown-up.”

“Why not?” Robbie asked. He made no attempt to hide his irritation. I could see the redness rising in his face like some sort of warning light.

Hank looked at him in mocking disbelief. “Because you’ll always be my baby brother. It’s hard to imagine you as anything but that.”

Robbie took umbrage at his comment. He’d never learned how to keep his emotions in check or how to keep a straight face. He was like our mom in that regard.

“I’m almost 40 years old. I’m hardly a baby. At least I’m – “

“He’s here to celebrate your freedom, Hank,” I interrupted. I knew where Robbie was going, and I had to cut him off before he inflamed old wounds. Our long weekend was just starting and to have him and Hank already fighting would make for a miserable experience. There had been moments on the drive up when I thought the trip would unravel before it even began, but I had managed to keep Robbie at bay while giving Hank room to venture out into the world he’d but shut off from for so long even if his part of that world had been taken away.

Who Is Buster McElroy?

In The Things We Cannot Keep, three brothers reconnect when the oldest one is released from prison after a manslaughter conviction that happened two decades ago. At the insistence of the youngest brother, they go on a camping trip hoping to recapture the magic of the camping excursions from their youth, but things quickly go awry when the weight of their tattered family proves too much. Buster McElroy is the middle brother, a somewhat unreliable narrator who is opinionated, confrontational, and more than mildly provocative.

Now in his 40s, Buster came of age in the chaos leading up to his brother’s conviction and hardened into the cynical critic that he is in the aftermath of his brother’s incarceration. He lacks the empathy that often betrays his younger brother and leaves no kind words in his wake. In the story, he’s the one that changes the most after the unfortunate events unfold following his brother’s release, but he’d refuse to admit it.

To a writer, characters are real people, maybe not in the flesh-and-blood sense, but they are very real in every other way. My characters tend to emerge, not as fully-formed persons in their own right, but as ones that evolve over time. It’s much like when you first meet someone and they introduce themselves in an often-superficial sense, but as you talk to them and learn more, you get a better idea of who they are. As you spend more and more time with them, you learn more about them, and the picture of their personalities develops like old-fashioned film coming to life under the sheen of chemicals in a dark room.

Buster is no different. When I first came up with the idea for this novel (it’s only a concept at this point), he was more defined by his birth order than any singular character trait he possessed because at that point he had none. Slowly, as the story idea turned over in my mind, he became the narrator. Then, he became the skeptical voice that resonated throughout the story. Then, I started thinking “What would Buster say?” whenever I thought of a new twist in the tale. Before I knew it, I had a fully-formed novel outline bustling around in my brain and Buster was the driving force.

For my main characters, I like to write the story of their lives before I write the novel that surrounds them. This gives me reference material as the actual novel unfolds and helps me keep them in character during the inevitable gyrations of novel development. It’s too easy to introduce inconsistencies over the months-long process of developing the first draft, and even later, during rewrites, characters can fall off the wagon if you don’t have a strong idea of who they are.

So who is Buster McElroy? He’s the narrator of The Things We Cannot Keep. He’s a provocative, somewhat unreliable narrator who cajoles the other characters in ways that exploit their weaknesses. He’s an unrepentant critic of everyone whose steadfast opinions color the world around him in ways that blind him. He’s also still evolving as a character, but one thing is certain. The events that unfold over the course of the novel will change him. For better or for worse has yet to be determined.

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.

Where To Next?

This past weekend I ran a half marathon. My goal during the race was to keep as consistent a pace as possible without falling off in the latter stages of the race, which I’m prone to do. One of the course guides rode near me on a bike the entire time and he would periodically call out my pace to me. Almost without fail, he’d report that I was running the same pace whether I was on a straightaway or on an incline. In the few instances where he told me I was falling off, I’d shake myself out of my racing trance and kick it into another gear. Having someone monitor me like that and give me a shot in the arm when I needed it helped me perform better than I probably would have otherwise. It felt like I had an impromptu coach by my side. I thanked him (breathlessly, of course) when he peeled off near the finish line and let me cut through the crowd by myself. I came to a stop on the other side of the tape and bent over to catch my breath. After I grabbed some water, I ambled over to a bench and took a well-deserved break.

It’s no shock to anyone who knows me that I often find parallels between running and writing – after all both of these activities suck up most of the little free time I have. After attending The Fifth Semester a few weeks ago and getting some good advice and guidance from the coaches there, I feel like they’ve helped me stay on pace, at least with my current project, but much like that race this weekend, I’m hunched over sucking wind in need of a break after making my first submission to my coach. As I mentioned in my last post, the rewrite of many parts of my novel took much longer than I had expected. I’m not sure I was “on pace” the whole time, but I did cross the finish line for that particular race.

Having a coach does help. External feedback helps. It’s easy to get wrapped up in my own little world in a race or in writing, so having someone tell me when I’m drifting off pace helps me pull it back together. A few years ago, I worked with a wonderful editor, Kathy Williams, at Strategic Finance magazine when I was doing a series of articles for them.  She was very good at her job, and she made my writing infinitely better, especially since the writing was technical and dry. Despite the topic, she made my articles pop off the page. She seemed to know where to add and subtract, and her suggestions were usually spot on. I loved working with her and often wished she worked with fiction writers. A good editor or coach can make or break a piece because many writers can’t see the forest for the trees, myself included.

This morning, I can still feel the residual soreness from the race this past weekend. I can also feel the doldrums between projects settling in. I’m in the process of re-reading Into the Caldera (the editing never stops!), but I’m also laying the foundation for my next project. I’ve decided to tackle one of my more recent ideas titled Pine Mountain. I posted the opening chapter here a while back. The story about a man who loses everything and returns to his hometown to put his life back together puts me back in the literary genre, and it has many interesting plot points that I cannot wait to explore. As usual, I kind of have a sense of where this story is going, but I won’t know for sure until I start writing. I’m at that stage of writing where I’m standing at the start line and I realize that I have a long distance to run and it feels a little overwhelming. Nevertheless, I’m eager to get started on what’s next after recovering for a bit.

(Re)Write

At first glance a writer’s life seems idyllic. Work often involves a comfortable chair and a steady stream of coffee nearby. The commute is to-die-for since it usually involves a small number of steps from bed to said chair (no more sitting in pointless traffic!). The dress code can range from comfortable to embarrassing and no one will report you to HR (although your spouse and/or kids may complain). Also, I’m certain that if I were a full-time writer that the after-lunch nap would be an acceptable practice. That’s what I tell myself anyway.

However, like everything else in life, it’s not that simple, and I’m convinced that the word idyllic is an adjective much like unicorn is a noun in that it describes something that does not exist (sorry, if I’ve burst your bubble about unicorns). While I can sit and write for hours with nary a pause, writing something that is cogent and delightful is a different story (no pun intended). Writing is hard. Of course, if it were easy everyone would have a best seller in bookstores on Amazon.

I just finished my umpteenth draft of Into the Caldera. If you’ve been following this blog (you can be forgiven if you’ve fallen asleep and missed a few, okay, a lot of posts), you may remember that I started this novel with gusto back in July of last year. I pounded out the first draft in under three months and then started the editing process, which took me through more loops than a game of Candyland. I eventually ended up at my recent writing boot camp with a novel that still needed more work despite months of effort on my part. Quite frankly, I was tired of it and longed to work on another idea that had me excited (I’m always excited about the next idea; the current one – not so much).

By the end of the long weekend at the boot camp, The Fifth Semester, one of the instructors, Ann Garvin, had breathed new life into my novel. She proposed a couple of ideas that really invigorated the story and got me excited about the project again. I began writing, or I should say, rewriting in earnest that weekend. I thought her suggestions were just what the novel needed to finally come to a finish. On the surface, these ideas seemed easy to implement, but the reality was quite different.

A novel, like any complicated object, is built in layers. The layers themselves may be simple, but when the whole is put together with all of the connections, the finished piece is complex and intertwined. Removing one simple part or idea is like trying to remove one thread from an intricately woven sweater. There were only two ideas in the story that I wanted to change based on Ann’s suggestions, but those changes impacted other parts of the story that then had to be changed to make the book coherent. Like any book, I had a good amount of foreshadowing of future events and references to past events in the narrative, so when I completely changed some things that happened, I had to go back and adjust the references or, in some cases, completely remove them.

Once I changed the story elements, the dominoes fell and I found myself stuck in an endless loop of rewrites. I’d read and re-read the story only to find yet another reference that was incorrect or made no sense. At one point, I wondered if it made more sense just to start over, but once you invest your life in a 70-thousand word story, it’s hard to trash the whole thing. I kept writing and rewriting until I thought I had a coherent draft ready to send to Ann. After much work, I finally sent her the draft on August 16th, which was more than a few weeks past when I had hoped to send it to her.

I’m sure she’ll find things that my tired mind overlooked. I’m sure I will, too. I’m re-reading the story again purely from a reader’s perspective to see how it flows. The changes I made were major in that they change the tone of the story dramatically. I basically took a sharp turn on the novel with my rewrites, but I think it makes it a better story. Nevertheless, I’m sure there are many more rewrites in my future with this story. The writer’s life isn’t so idyllic after all.

Perspective Shifting

Karen Connelly wrote an interesting article in support of her latest novel, The Change Room, which in and of itself sounds compelling. In the article she talks about how she started the novel one way based on her own biases but completely shifted her perspective after she spent some time researching the subject of her novel, sex workers. She started with the idea that being a sex worker was a dour, depressing job fraught with emotional scars and mental instability. The result was a rather bleak novel.

After she spent some time researching her subject, she put the first draft in the proverbial drawer and simply wrote another more enlightening story that became The Change Room. The new novel depicted sex work in a very different light, one that many would refuse to accept or believe. I haven’t read any reviews on the the novel, but I bet it’s only a matter of time before someone accuses Ms. Connelly of glorifying sex work, and I doubt such criticism would be limited to one side of the ridiculous political spectrum because each end would see their devil in the details.

No doubt sex work has a dark underbelly that should concern us all, but that’s not the point of this post. What’s intriguing about Ms. Connelly’s experience is how her ingrained biases pushed her in one direction and her research pulled her in another. In the end, logic and creativity won out, and that’s the beauty of being a writer. Being able to explore different perspectives and present readers with said perspectives is one of the greatest joys of writing. Let’s face it, a novel that simply chronicles the mundane and plays out in a way that caters to everyone’s inherent biases makes for dull reading. Certainly, writers shouldn’t focus on changing everyone’s mind about a topic or issue, but they shouldn’t shy away from challenging social norms and group think either.

Everyone has biases. By virtue of having lived, biases form naturally. Some are simple such as a preference for a food. Others are more wide-ranging and potentially dangerous such as a dislike for another race or culture. The inclination for these biases cannot be denied, but awareness of them is essential to growing as a human being. Writers often play off these preferences by assigning similar attributes to their characters and putting them in the context of a story. It’s only through this experimentation that we can challenge social norms and, hopefully, shift perspectives.

As I’ve done more development work for my novel, Pine Mountain, I’ve realized that there are a lot of biases at play. Each of the characters is burdened with his or her own preconceived notions about the world around him or her. The protagonist, Eric, is at his core a good person, but he struggles with how he views his hometown despite all of the things that have changed since he left. On the other hand, Bobby, his brother-in-law and his primary foil in the novel, clings to a darker view of the world that seems at times out of place and harmful in many ways. I have yet to determine how (or if) these two characters will evolve in the novel, but there will certainly be moments where the readers will be faced with uncomfortable situations, which I hope will make them stop and consider another point of view.

That being said, any novel is a byproduct of the writer’s biases as well. Just like Ms. Connelly started her book in one way only to shelve it and go in a completely different direction, I hope I have the courage to do the same should it play out that way for this story. Shifting perspectives doesn’t just apply to readers. It applies to writers as well. That’s what makes it all fun and rewarding.