Work

“You can have talent, but if you cannot endure, if you cannot learn to work, and learn to work against your own worst tendencies and prejudices, if you cannot take the criticism of strangers, or the uncertainty, then you will not become a writer. PhD, MFA, self-taught — the only things you must have to become a writer are the stamina to continue and a wily, cagey heart in the face of extremity, failure, and success.”

–Alexander Chee

“How to Write an Autobiographical Novel”

Mystery

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I worked on the 14th floor of the bank tower in downtown Portland. As part of June’s Rose Festival celebration, upriver bridges lifted for ships to pass through to dock downtown. Crowds gathered to greet sailors at the docks, to stand in line for tours along the towering decks. No one returned to witness the cranking castoff and engine reverse at the end of the pageant, when the ships turned their steel bows back out to sea and rose petals blew black on the sidewalk. I watched from the tower window.

I rode the Burnside bus. My stop came at the foot of a pocket park between the bank tower and Mary’s Strip Club. There are upright canines plying downtown streets, the jackal-men, the wolves, coyotes, and hounds. One December morning, I stepped off the bus behind two men. One pulled a package of raw chicken from the waistband of his pants, meat stolen a dozen blocks up Burnside from the Safeway store where they boarded. As I crossed the park, one tore the plastic wrap away, crouched down and ripped at the dimpled fat with yellow teeth, vapor from their co-mingled breath wreathing as they huffed at flesh and disappeared in fog.

Sometimes I took the elevator down to the street to smoke, coat-less in the cold. I wore cobbled black pumps like retreaded tires and shivered in a faux-silk polyester blouse. When she saw me braced against the wind on the sidewalk, Audrey turned her loopy-wheeled shopping cart up 5th to ask for a cigarette. Her left eye was lazy and drifted to doze as we talked. She traveled with an old Yorkie bedded down on the black plastic bags stacked in her cart. When I gave her a cigarette, Audrey tucked it behind her ear and drew down her navy surplus cap. She didn’t smoke, she said, she needed to trade it for something to feed the dog.

I walked the pedestrian alleyways and sidewalks downtown. Coyotes crouched on flattened cardboard drumming stubble cheeks with stained fingernails. I worked my way across city blocks diagonally, crossing streets as traffic ebbed and stalled, skirting construction pits, smoke-eyed poodles with pink hair and script tattoos, wolves with red silk ties wheeling Humvees into valet parking. I moved to another city and took another job in another downtown, another one skimming the concrete fringe, searching out my own reflection in plate glass windows.

***

In the freezing fog of November, the camp in the oaks collapsed to a heap of canvas and nylon, a single shoe, broken glass. We walk up river, skirting crushed plastic bottles and clothing shreds the dog takes into her teeth and thrashes, if I let her. This one is a pirate seeking booty. I scout the ground as we walk, scanning for the glint of needles or orange syringe caps.

We pick our way down the bank, over black rocks, to the river. Great Blue Heron fish alone, still as snag, feathers blending with the timbre of the current. Sheltered by reeds and overhung alder, I startle a bird from her reverie beside an eddy. The heron cries out before launching aloft over the river. Chastened, I counsel the dog as we watch her flight dissolve in the mist.

The scent of water and wet dog settles over me, walking out singular, but not alone, into the open places, another vagrant, another mutt looking for home. There may be meaning in daring a place among this enigmatic array of earthly things, though it eludes me still.

I whistle for the dog and walk out, listening. These secrets are beside the river, if they are anywhere. There are fierce shy birds hidden there along the bank, birds the color of water.

 

Heron

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Fog seeps in during the dark morning hours and licks at windows and jambs. It may dissolve by noon, or it may settle and weep for a week. Out of the valley, above, the sky is bitter blue and the sun radiant. Waiting in traffic, playing with the radio.

One or the other, not both. Choose.

At some point the building inspector comes to check the new hot water heater installed yesterday. There’s a sign stapled outside displaying the permit number. The old tank started leaking and a towel laid to soak up the rivlet needed changing twice a day, wringing out one and barricading with another, hanging the wet one out on the deck railing to drip. It’s a hybrid hot water heater with wifi, warming a tank of water via heat rummaged from the air. It looks like the robot from Lost in Space.

D. managed the replacement, as with all the structural and engineering things that go wrong in a household because he’s a wizard, moving my plastic bins packed full of salvaged wrapping paper and Christmas ornaments from the garage shelves to run the condensate line along the wall to drain outside, and then stacking them carefully back. Before the young men came to install the new heater, I took a long hot shower and combed through my hair with my fingers to shed any honey locust leaves, because civilization is held together with duct tape.

Dancers learn to spot during an extended turn, during a fouetté, a pirouette, to maintain body line and balance without becoming dizzy. A dancer focuses her eyes on a fixed point as she turns, whipping her head around ahead of the turning body to maintain equilibrium.

Pick a farther spot, one in the middle distance, and don’t let go.

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NaNo

Today the calender turns over to November and National Novel Writing Month, a challenge for intrepid novelists determined to write 50K words in 30 days. That works out to 1667 words per day, even on weekends, holidays, elections, and when the power goes out. To all those participating in Nanowrimo, I salute you.

I completed the challenge twice, finishing one (short) novel and getting 60k words written  on the second. I signed up on October 30th for my first Nano, having only just learned about the nonprofit event that day, and secretly believed it was the quick-start kick-start I needed to launch my next brilliant career as a novelist.

Here is the summary of that first attempt:

“When vagabond musician, Lucas, is summoned to discharge his grandmother’s estate and sell her Victorian house, a battered old chest reveals an handwritten book among the antiques in the attic. The eighteenth century journal tells of an English ancestor, orphaned and shipped abroad to central Asia, as governess to the ambassador’s children. As he reads Verity Hightower’s struggles in a vastly foreign country, Lucas must confront his own desire to keep the house, pitted against his brother’s demands to sell it quickly.  With each chapter of Verity’s story, Lucas embraces the lessons of necessity, family and the true meaning of “home.”

Ugh. Hybrid bodice-ripper-romance dual narrative.

Here is the summary of my second Nano novel:

When a sheep rancher and her dog are savagely killed, suspicion falls on the neighbor’s rescue dogs. To protect her dogs from being blamed for the carnage and destroyed, seventeen year-old Sammi flees with them across the mountains to the high desert. As Sammi desperately tries to elude the state police and forensic biologist pursuing her, she crosses paths with the otherworldly beast spreading carnage, and his master. Sammi must fight for her own life, as well as the lives of her dogs, against dark immortal forces.

Better? Horror-fantasy I swear I will finish some day.

I learned a lot about myself and a lot about story. But this year, I’m struggling to keep the writing hours, rather than the word count.

If you are Nanoing, and tired of trying to form a sentence, I recommend a quick read for some perspective over at McSweeney’s. List: If Other Professionals talked about Their Jobs the Way Writers Do.

Word by word.

Hallow

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Terry comes on Wednesday mornings. He drives an old gray pickup with a cracked windshield and garden tools lashed in the bed: mower, edger, leaf blower. Terry works for neighbor Vic across the road; he backs his truck into the hammerhead atop our hill and lets down the tailgate to roll out machinery. Mercy races from the front windows downstairs to the back yard yammering and howling, hammering at the back gate until I catch up to let her out to greet Terry and his dog, Aggie.

Hard frost in a moonless night, leaves skitter to drifts, bank against stone.

When Mercy was a pup, we went over to properly introduce ourselves beyond a nod and wave. She’s shy with strangers other than children, flitting and flirting, but determined to avoid strange hands reaching out to pat her square head, fumble at her silver doeskin ears. Mercy took a shine to Terry. She’s not startled by deafening gas-powered machinery now, quite the contrary. While riding in the car, she attends to every stranger out mowing we pass, as if each one might be Terry.

Dry cold air, sparking static from doorknobs and grocery carts, tentative metallic taste, another sort of lightning. Ground. Downward into this tilting northern darkness, a sinking ship, unsounding leviathan.

I walked out after Mercy with a bag of Halloween candy for Terry and chicken jerky for Aggie. I don’t know why I buy the candy anymore and stage it on the hallway table close to the front door when no one knocks; the steep hill and dead end road are a bad bargain for costumed children.

My son is grown and on his own, well beyond trick-or-treating–those years I insisted he eat some dinner before we ventured out in various storms to canvas the neighborhood and collect sweet booty in a plastic jack-o’lantern.  He was always the Dark Knight.

Snow above high in the wind, barometer of falling. The Wasp Queen driven out from her nest under fallen timber wanders, seeks shelter before the storm. 

I throw a tennis ball for the dogs, throw a stick Mercy stole from the wood crib when the ball is lost, and talk while the wind lifts my hair like Medusa because I’ve forgotten my hat. Terry has a backstage pass for the show at MacDonald Theater tomorrow, he says and asks, what do we plan for Halloween?

Prepare a fine meal, I explain: a lamb chop, an apple cut for the star seeded inside, a glass of red wine, arranged on linen with the blessed dead invited to dine.

Do they come? He asks.

Yes.

 

 

Coyote

“The coyotes roamed the edges of the neighborhood at dawn and dusk, big eared, serene, drawn tight as bow strings. Coyotes love to trick domestic dogs, to play with them and draw them away from their yard and out into the hills, where they then set upon them as a pack, kill and eat them.”

–Cameron Mackenzie, Cutbank Weekly Flash Prose

The heat pump register bangs, laboring to filter and deliver warm air against condensing fog, heavy morning mist. It may burn off by noon, or not at all. Sometimes we don’t see the sky for days, with rain and fog and full-spectrum gray from dove to doe. Sink down in the loam like locust backing into the earth to wait. Dread, over the left shoulder and behind, yet looming ahead.

This is not the season for the hopeful. They come in the summer, go to school, fall in love, find a job, and stay. When the light drains away and freezing fog fills the valley for days, they ask how long it will last. When a far line of sight is blocked, the only view is inward down to the bone.

I once hired a brilliant network engineer named Jonathan. He moved here from the mid-west with his girlfriend after she was accepted into a graduate program. Get the best rain gear you can afford, I advised, walk outside every day; get candles if you don’t have a fireplace, grind spices for tea and bathe in the vapor. Jonathan lasted until early December. He apologized, and I argued, but he had to leave he said, else he would hang himself.

Solace of apples, perhaps the same alchemy that extracts antivenin from venom, the honeycrisp as cure. Core and chop the fruit to simmer down to chunky sauce, spike with cinnamon and nutmeg. Heat a cup of amontillado to a near-boil and soak red flame raisins to plump. Mix a muffin batter with applesauce and raisins. Give away the batch to those who politely refused the crisp imperfect apples from the tree.

Temporary measures, taken in sequence, become strategy.

 

Sunset

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“I leave a white and turbid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where’er I sail. The envious billows sidelong swell to whelm my track; let them; but first I pass.”

–Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Rain rips the red leaves from the dogwood and whips waves of gold down from the birch. A frost last week, though not hard and certain, was enough warning to corral the potted citrus and thorny bougainvillea inside for the season. Crushing acorns underfoot as we walk the trails, a year in the making. The crows pick the meat from the shells and the dog charges the squirrels when we return. Shed.

Houses in the old neighborhood are decorated for Halloween. It seems it’s always been this way, this casting and passing, this litter of leaves.  Dad’s ginger dog Ben and I walk down to the park. We pass lawns decked out with styrofoam tombstones, trees dangling plastic pumpkins lit by violet eyes. These are wards, I know, talismans strung on each threshold to forestall unfriendly spirits, effective even if purchased at a box store. After the cross-quarter, such magic, no longer needed, will be assigned to the trash. But the warding is sincere. Darkness gathering in the north, we walk on.