Winner of Glimmer Train’s New Writer Award
Nominated for a Pushcart Prize
Anthologized in Sudden Fiction (Continued) (Norton)
Reprinted in Literary Cavalcade (Scholastic)
Published as a recording in the audio-lit journal, The Drum, Mar. 2013 - “The Fish”
Come daybreak, Ida knew what they’d find – Jake standing over 120 of his cattle he’d managed to pen and shoot, one by one. She knew full well that he’d lost his mind and she’d never have him back. She knew that she was now a widow.
Her porch light showed two cows that had escaped, standing in the black morning near the ranchhouse and looking out towards Jake’s hissing kerosene lantern, the only other light for five miles. She clicked off her light and sat in her porch rocker.
She’d called the sheriff, but by the time he got there Jake was two-thirds finished and they couldn’t see him in the dark and “besides,” as the sheriff said, “they’re his cows anyway. No point in pushing a man into taking a shot at you.” So he parked his patrol car up the dirt road and decided to wait for daylight.
A gunshot sounded from the corral and echoed off a mountain bluff a mile away. In the silence that followed, Ida heard the sheriff’s radio crackle once, and then his voice calm and quiet, saying he’d presently be bringing Jake in. There was a garbled and mechanical reply, then the radio was turned off. The only indication of the sheriff in the darkness was the red pinpoint of his cigarette where he stood waiting outside his car. “He’ll simmer down,” he’d told her, “after he finishes.”
But she knew there’d be no simmering down. It was the way Jake had said, “Goodnight, Ida,” as he stepped out the screen door with his gun. On those words, whatever bond had held them together for 47 years snapped. And she saw Jake drifting into space like an astronaut who gets his cord cut to the mother ship in one of those sci-fi movies. She was on the mother ship. The mother ship was earth, and Jake was gone.
Her calmness surprised her. But she’d known nights like this before. She’d been through the death watches of both her parents, and was there and awake when the trembling took her father and he opened his eyes, knowing what was coming. And she remembered when she was a girl and her neighbors, the Ramseys, lost their house to fire and had no insurance. Her mother gave their two little girls cookies and read them stories while the men dug through the ashes.
All her years had taught her that no matter how horrible the night, the next day the world would always be different; maybe not better, but changed and set off on a new course. And all you had to do was let the world take you that way. Her mother once told her that you can’t let your heart break if no good can come of it.
With her toe she pushed against the porch floor of the house and the rocker creaked back and forth. She knew the sun would be breaking through any moment to the east behind her. The fence had appeared in front of the house like a shadow and a shrub or two on the other side of it were dark blurs. Each morning from the porch she watched the first light come up from the ground across the ranch like mist, objects crystallizing before her. Now she could see three tumbleweeds pressed against the fence and remembered the tumbleweed snowmen she had made each Christmas since she got the idea 30 years ago.
She leaned back in her chair and thought of Florida and her sister and realized that was more than likely where she was headed. Good, she thought. Someplace different. Her sister had warned her against marrying Jake, said any man that would try and raise milk cows instead of beef cows in west Texas was crazy. “Jake’s interested in milk,” she’d heard herself say and regretted it the instant she said it. No way her sister was going to understand. Ida didn’t understand herself, but she knew whatever made Jake want to raise milk cows against all common sense was tied in with the thing that made her love him.
To everyone’s surprise, Jake somehow managed to turn a profit from his little dairy. The milk cows certainly weren’t made for long-range, West Texas grazing, but he was able to cut a couple of good deals with local farmers for feed, and by irrigating was able to raise a few acres of alfalfa himself. And he sure didn’t have to worry about competition for his milk.
Only when they first married did he say anything about the cows. He explained that he just liked the idea of feeding babies, of them going from their mother’s breast to him and his cows, then growing up and into the world. He liked being a part of that.
Ida wondered how many gentle and fragile people lived full, happy lives because the one event that could have pushed them over the edge never occurred. For Jake, that event was the test the people from Texas A&M ran on his milk. It showed traces of lead and arsenic, just within legal limits, and more than likely on the rise. What Jake could not get from his mind for the next three days was the thought that babies had been drinking his milk. Today was the fourth day.
Some young people had approached them about it, pointing fingers towards groundwater pollution and a toxic dump site. They wanted them to take it to court. But for those three days after the test it was all Ida could do to take care of Jake, and now it was too late to matter. With Jake gone, she was surprised how easily everything fell from her shoulders, how easily she could let go of the burden of this beautiful, desolate land. This was Jake’s country, and she could not bear witness to it without him. And without Jake, it lost its claim on her. It would be easy enough to leave this house.
She remembered driving down the dirt driveway that Friday morning after the doctor told them Jake couldn’t father any children. She hated the doctor for that. He should’ve never said whose fault it was because it didn’t matter. They couldn’t have children, not Jake alone. Driving home he didn’t say a word, and in the silence she became gripped by the fear he’d leave her. She knew he was thinking that he wasn’t good enough for her, wasn’t enough of a man. In bed that night she insisted he love her. Demanded it. And when he couldn’t, and the coldness and distance swept into her, some dark part of herself opened and she did something she never thought she could do, then things she’d never even heard of. She was so shameless it scared him, but it woke him up and brought him to her. “It’s not for babies,” she told him. “It’s for me. It’s so you can please me.”
A shot rang out, and she blushed, having been caught remembering that, then slowly began pushing those memories away. They didn’t go easily. They seemed to flutter inside her like birds; frightened, insistent, white. She imagined opening a window and setting them free; watched them fly over the desert until the curves of their wings shrunk to pinpoints, then disappeared altogether into the sky.
There was nothing she could do to bring him back this time. She had nothing new to show him. He was through, and that was all. She knew him well enough to let him be.
“Accept, accept,” she whispered as she slowly rocked. This part of her life was simply over. She told herself to count her blessings for 47 years with a man like Jake. And if her sister, Mae, brought it up, then Ida’d have to point out that her husband only lasted 25.
She thought again of Florida: she could get fresh seafood, and she remembered riding with Mae in the back seat of their Chevrolet the summer before the war when their folks took them to Galveston. Ida ordered flounder almost every meal. It infuriated Mae, who could see no point in eating a fish so silly it had both eyes on the same side of its face. But Ida explained that it simply wanted to see the sky. And Jake when he was courting her – she caught him lying on his back in a field in the middle of the morning. She walked out to him and asked him what he thought he was doing. “I reckon I’m just looking up,” he told her. She watched him, then lay beside him. When he reached out and took her hand, she knew she was married.
Ida hadn’t thought about the flounder since she was a little girl. She’d have to tell Mae, and Mae would tell her she was as crazy as Jake. Ida was surprised the thought could make her smile. It was daylight now, quiet, and she could see the sheriff ambling toward the corral.
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Published in Glimmer Train
Reprinted online in Redux at this link: Keeper
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Waiting Till the Wait Is Over
Published in Notre Dame Magazine, Summer 2015
The greatest gift my father may have ever given me came as a byproduct of a wish — he wanted me to be a hunter. Scratch that; he wanted us to hunt together as father and son. Which we did for many years, until puberty and interests such as girls, tennis, guitar and my peer group drew me from his world into another. I was fishing with him as early as age 3; at 7 carrying a BB gun as we skirted a cornfield for doves; by 9 crouching in a duck blind with my pint-sized 410 shotgun at the ready; and at 11 sitting next to him up high in a tree blind as we hunted deer.
People who have issues with hunting do not understand hunting as I experienced it. For our family it was nothing out of the ordinary that at 3 I could be quiet and still in a boat, understanding if I dropped my soda or banged my rod, the boat’s metal hull would conduct the sound through the water and send the fish scurrying. By first grade I knew how to scan a trail for snakes, for copperheads and rattlers. I was never afraid of them because my father taught me how to see them, but also because I knew he would see them first.
In the third grade I was carrying a firearm that could kill my father. I remember the weight of that knowledge as I followed him down a path, realizing if I made a mistake, followed a dove’s arc toward him, I could pull the trigger at the worst possible moment. Picture me, tiny for my age, in camouflaged hunter’s gear and hunting boots, stepping after him down some tracing of a path, already skilled in walking softly and freezing at the sight of incoming birds.
But the biggest test of my skills as a hunter — which more than anything is really the skill of being still, of blending in, of waiting — was deer hunting. When I was 11 my father drove us from our home in Grand Prairie, one of the suburbs of Dallas-Fort Worth, down to his lease in the Texas hill country. I carried my 410 shotgun for show; it would be useless for deer.
A few years later he bought me a rifle small enough to manage, a Winchester lever-action 30-30. Although we often saw deer from the blind, I never witnessed him firing a shot, though I would fire one at 14 years of age, a stunning, perfect, single bullet that would drop my only deer some 30 feet from where I hit him. The deer was young, antlers just sprouting. Somehow with this event my time as a hunter ended. At least that’s how my memory frames it. I may have gone hunting a few times afterward, but I know my heart wasn’t in it. I’m certain my separation wasn’t for regrets or feelings of guilt at taking the life of this creature. The shooting of the deer seemed more of a conclusion. My focus shifted. I still would not take the shot back.
But I’ve jumped ahead. I want to go back to age 5. Or 6 or 7. To consider the hours I spent fishing in the boat with my father, walking beside him hunting doves, hunkered in the duck blind waiting for the birds to fly in. I sat beside him in the tree blind and never saw him shoot, or shoot at, a deer.
Deer season lasts, more or less, 12 weeks, and my father hauled his gear down to the lease almost every weekend, taking me with him once or twice. By the end of the season he would have brought home three deer — two does and one buck, the limit allowed by law. The older bucks with trophy racks tend to lie low. They move from brush to brush. They know they’re being hunted and will hang back and let the does cross a clearing first to draw fire. During an entire season you may see only two or three deer with trophy racks, and my father sat in the blind passing up good shots, waiting for the right deer, usually bringing him in on one of the last weekends.
Mornings at the lease I would wake to my father nudging me at 4:30 a.m. as he set a cup of coffee beside my bed in the cabin or trailer or whatever he and his deer-lease pals had rented. On particularly cold nights water might freeze in our glasses, but by the time I crawled out of my bed and my feet hit the freezing floor he would’ve already fired up the stove and cooked breakfast — scrambled eggs and toast and more coffee. Soon we were driving in an open-top Jeep, a tiny green thing, an army toy, the headlights feeling their way through the darkness as it rocked across the dirt and grass, and the stars overhead ridiculous in their number, unbelievable, gaudy except for their beauty. We left our cabin so early and in total darkness because we had to park the Jeep, walk many yards away from it to clear ourselves of its presence, climb up the trunk of a tree, and situate ourselves atop a flat wooden platform at least 30 minutes before the sun rose to let the dust we’d kicked up settle and our scent dissipate. Otherwise we would see no animals.
I think now, more than anything, my father was there to see animals.
Picture me beside him, our feet hanging off the platform’s edge. The sun starts to rise. The blues streak through the black, and the sky opens. This is the best, most beautiful moment of the day, and the next hour will provide the most likely shot we will have.
Here is how you manage your presence on the deer blind: You scan from side to side in the smallest increments possible looking for movement. You don’t move your hands, your arms, your legs. You’re bundled, but your face is freezing. At some point your nose will start to run. You let it run if you can stand it, but if you can’t, you move your gloved hand in the slowest possible increments to your face to capture the effluvia. You do not sniff, as any deer would pick up that sound. You press your glove to your nose, then, in increments, lower it back to your side.
At some point during that first hour your toes will start to go to sleep. They will hurt, they will curl, they will sting. But you cannot wiggle your feet as that would wiggle your boots and alert any animal nearby to movement in the tree. But you can wiggle your toes inside your boots. And so you wiggle your toes, which at least slows down their falling asleep, and incrementally bring your glove to your nose again to wipe away the snot and lower it, also incrementally. You live incrementally for the longest time. It becomes your discipline, snot and extremities be damned.
Perhaps my most favorite moment (yes, I chose that construction): The birds had just erupted into sound with the first light, and by our tree, gullies claimed by the early fog creased the grass. My father had a way of tapping my knee with the back of his hand and gesturing toward something he wanted me to see, and as he tapped me I saw it, too — a fox, the only fox I’ve ever seen in the wild — bounding out of the fog and gullies and disappearing back into them, drawing reddish arcs with its body in the blue light.
The Germans have a word for the discipline it takes to hunt — sitzfleisch. It is translated variously as “The ability to endure or carry on with an activity”; “A person’s buttocks; the power to endure or to persevere in an activity; stamina”; “The fleshy part of the human body that one sits on.” You have to love the Germans. They can invent a word from anything through the pieces of their language. Length is of little importance as is sometimes elegance, but still they can name the thing that needs naming. There were, and are, many Germans in the Texas hill country where I hunted with my father.
Sitzfleisch has to do with being still, with waiting. It has to do with being able to maintain one’s focus through discomfort to the other side of discomfort; with learning that this is the work, and if you can do it, something surprising may appear. An animal.
So I learned to stay with discomfort in order that a deer might appear that I didn’t have to shoot, or a flock of ducks might lift the wind as they swept over my head, or a fox might arc through fog in the gullies. What astonishes me, in retrospect, is I had the discipline to do this as a child, from ages 3 to 14, withstanding boredom and discomfort. And because I was taught that this behavior was normal, expected, I learned sitzfleisch.
Years later the discipline came into play as I drove my little red car back and forth down I-35 from Grand Prairie to the University of Texas at Austin. The 200 miles seemed an immense distance, and I was miserable the first hour, bored, anxious, worries batting around in my head. I’d turn on the radio, then switch it off, then turn it on again, wondering how I was going to manage my irritation. Finally I would shut it off and just sit through the discomfort. Because on one of these drives I’d learned that at some point if I stayed with it, and it might take a damn long while, something would change. When it did, my experience was as if the world relaxed. And I’d take a breath and wonder at the colors in the sky and the hills, and at how I was traveling at 70 miles an hour down an open road. I’d see birds curling through the air and clouds shapeshifting. It was a kind of meditation, though I didn’t know it then, a kind of slowing down, and by slowing down I could witness things that moved deeper than the rat-a-tat firings of my brain. A lone tree on a hill could appear miraculous. And why not? Isn’t it?
I learned to meditate. People who’ve never tried it don’t understand that during each session anxieties and concerns are flying through your mind, and that the calming or releasing of this chatter can feel like a kind of work. What the experienced meditator knows is if you sit with the discomfort of the day’s thoughts pressing in at every angle, a moment usually comes when the mind slows down. Some days go easier than others, but that’s not what matters. What matters is your showing up and sitting down and beginning.
Late by most standards, at age 25 I discovered I was a writer. It was an accident. I was at The University of Texas, lost regarding who I was and what I might do; so lost, in fact, I’d majored in acting. But I was no actor, and after two years — we were juried — I was asked to find a career more suited to my talents, or lack thereof. Only because during my final semester a movement teacher had us recite poems while jumping around the dance studio, I discovered modern poetry. I was stunned by what was possible with words and incredulous as to why I’d been so underexposed to it.
When I followed this experience with a poetry-writing course, I knew I’d found my home. And the most obvious talent I had, or skill might be a better word, was this ability to sit through discomfort, to be still, to produce steady work, whether good or bad. It wasn’t until years later when I was getting my MFA in creative writing that I found out from classmates that sitzfleisch wasn’t second nature for many, if not most writers.
Being able to sit through discomfort is one of the most important skills a writer can develop. Day after day you must sit somewhere, public or private. You wait. You stare at the screen or paper. You try things. You chase leads and follow your characters and instincts. You try something else. You get coffee and come back, move words around on paper. You don’t push for an end, for completion, for relief. Or at least you try not to, because on some level there is no relief. On some level you don’t want relief. You want to sit with your process, your work, your story, your material. You scribble or tap away until your allotted time is up or you’ve put down your required word-count for that day. However you mark your progress. You walk away. The next day you begin again.
My experience coaching writers has shown me this can be learned at any point. As in hunting, you don’t look for a quick shot from the deer blind. You don’t look for completion and relief and the trip back to the cabin in the Jeep. Even if your toes go to sleep and your nose starts to run. You sit with the process day after day until it becomes habit. Until the time spent in your creative space becomes the goal. Until you’re not yourself without it. Blank page or no. Words moving or no. Story working or no. You sit. You scribble. You fill the page with nonsense if that’s what it takes to get things moving. You accept your discomfort. You practice this, over and over, and get better at it. Not perfect, but better. One day, after you’ve put in so much time that no one but another writer, or maybe a hunter, would understand, a character you’re working with makes a decision that surprises you. So you follow the decision to see where it might lead. Down the path that has opened unexpectedly. Down the storyline.
Suddenly, an animal appears.
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Glimmer Train’s Bulletin, Jan. 2013. Your Sanctuary
(On the importance of writing spaces)
Edith Wharton and Truman Capote wrote in bed. Virginia Woolf wrote standing in a room of her own. Philip Roth writes standing, but in a studio physically separated from his living quarters. Lesser-known writers enjoy passing such minutiae among themselves, details of how the legends write and wrote to make them seem tangible, human, and more than anything else, possible. Those struggling to write (which is all of us at some level) may then try to shake up their own writing routine by following such examples. Others think such pursuits are trifles, dodges against larger issues. Sure, the space and environment where one chooses to attempt one's work may seem trivial
compared to such concerns as vision, voice, and imagination. But vision, voice, and imagination are only relevant if a writer can get words onto the page. There's a famous photo of Mark Twain writing—where he always wrote—in bed, a blanket pulled up to his waist and a cigar planted squarely in his mouth. It's worth noting he kept that particular bed (his writing bed) with him for thirty-two years from the time he bought it in 1878 until his death in 1910.
As a writing coach, one of the first things I ask clients is where, when, and and how they write. It almost always follows that those who are struggling to simply get words to paper in a regular, sustained fashion, whether they're new to the game or accomplished, cannot give me a clear answer. Or at least a good one. This lack of clarity on the subject points to the trouble, as well as to underlying issues. Finding an environment where one can consistently tap into a creative state is no small matter. It's the ground level of establishing a regular practice, and a regular practice is how large works get written. Nothing happens, or will happen to you as a writer until you find a way to bring pages upon pages, both good and bad, into existence. This is the work, and until you can manage it you are kidding yourself. Once you conquer this stage you may well find the hours long, only to discover that those hours have become your sanctuary, as have the physical spaces you inhabit when the words come to you. Through disappointments, loss, age, you will return to those hours and those spaces. You will have them, so long as you continue to earn them (by showing up), regardless of what "success" your creations find once they leave your hands.
The kind of space that works best is different for everyone, and it may change several times during your writing life. You may be fond of working in a library, only to find yourself after many years of success, blocked. If so, pay attention to your workspace. Does the room around you seem too large and still and quiet? If this is not a fleeting response, if it is present session after session, it may be time to find a different kind of environment. For whatever reason I work best in a public space, such as a coffee shop or a quiet bar. I'm one of those odd people in a corner scribbling away and muttering to himself while others are having a good time. I'm not proud of this. It's just what works best for me, and I'm shameless when I find what works best for me. I'd cross-dress if that helped fuel my writing. I'd wear a beanie with a propeller on top. But I've found there's something about the white noise of chatter that makes me feel both supported and connected. On especially good days snippets of conversation may even find their way into the work. But there are attendant dangers in each location (especially the bar—writers create in spite of substance abuse, not because of it), so manage yourself accordingly if similar environs work for you.
Many people find they work best in a less stimulating environment, such as a library, an office in an apartment, or at least a quiet corner in one's home. But if you work out of your home, I highly recommend you find an area where you're removed from the demands of your non-writing life. If your children or a spouse are constantly asking you questions, if cleaning the stove or vacuuming or returning that phone call suddenly seems critical during your work session, you probably need to locate a new space. Here's the trick: each successful day's writing (and by "successful" I mean you simply hit your mark for that day) in a particular space, whether in your home or elsewhere, will prove to you that you can write in that particular space. Your daily work will at first start to seem possible, then likely, then taken for granted.
Once this space is established, you will begin to transition into a creative state even as you approach it, whether you're aware of it or not. Afterward, you'll likely come away sated or relieved (if a bit tired), or at least happy that you got in a day's work. Excepting, of course, the bad days, and they will come, and you simply have to persevere through them. A safe, familiar, and comforting writing environment will help you weather such periods. However, if your space feels less like a sanctuary and more like an iron maiden, if you clench and fill with anxiety as soon as you approach your desk, then you should make some changes in your environment in order to make some changes to your process. I recommend you begin by addressing the sensual and ritualistic aspects of yourself that are too often ignored in our writing practices.
Start with a cup of tea or coffee. If you like flowers, consider placing a fresh cut flower on your writing desk each day. Eat a piece of fruit as you look over the previous day's work. Find a way to reward yourself for what you're doing. Maybe there's someone who has inspired or supported you. Frame a small photograph of that person and place it on your desk. Perhaps there's a rock you picked up along the beach that you've kept since high school. Roll it around in your hand while imagining a scene or tackling a story issue. Are you writing a period piece? Thumb-tack an album cover or a poster of a painting from that particular time above your computer screen, one you
can disappear into when you look away from your computer or paper. Buy a new, more comfortable chair. Move your desk to a window. Many writers, myself included, need to be able to look away from the work and into the distance. Others may find they need to remove themselves from such a distraction. So be it. It's your environment. Get in tune with what works for you. Don't hesitate or apologize for it. Don't try to explain it, even to yourself. Just make the change.
Again, I can sense some writers sneering at such "easy" solutions. To clarify, I'm not saying addressing one's writing environment is the answer; I'm merely saying it's necessary. You can take a wannabe offensive lineman and work him in the weight room until he's thick as a tree. That may not make him a professional-level right guard, but it will give him the chance to be a professional- level right guard. There are a number of very specific skills, natural abilities, and a particular temperament required by such a demanding position. But he must first be made strong enough to stand up to his opponents without getting crushed. Until then you know nothing. And until a writer can produce sustained work, you know nothing. I would, in fact, offer that the capacity to produce sustained work—this need actualized on paper—whether experienced as torturous, effortless, or somewhere in-between, is the truest indicator of this animal we call a writer. Regardless, again, of the success of each individual piece in the world.
Such a skill, the ability—whether inspired or not (and particularly when not)—to write on a consistent basis over an extended period of time, is relatively rare, at least initially, even among the most talented writers. But it is a skill that can be cultivated through patience, discipline, and habit. If you are successful in developing it, it will bring rewards beyond the writing itself. There are tricks that can truly help, and paying attention to one's writing space is but one. But to do what a writer must do, which is to call upon the deepest self and, some would argue, even forces outside oneself, one must reach an almost preternatural level of focus. Which may not feel like focus; may instead
feel like a door opening. It does take a particular kind of person to approach such a door and for it to open with little struggle. To become that person may take years of steady commitment. But so does meditation. So does Tai Chi and Aikido and Karate. So does maintaining a successful love relationship. In the end, as in most matters, it's all about the work.
Author's note: During one of the later drafts of this piece I switched seats in a coffee shop four times until I found one that felt right. Which may sound (and be) obsessive. But guess what? Then I started writing.