Wednesday, May 30, 2012

I'd Rather Be Writing My Novel

I have a sweatshirt with that inscription. It’s white, with black typescript. That’s how old it is: from back in the day when typewriters were the technology. In my attic, I have two typewriters, which I actually moved with me to Hudson because I wasn’t ready to let them go: the pale blue Royal Futura portable my parents gave me when I graduated from junior high school, and another one, very lightweight, that I took to Costa Rica when Dan and I spent a month there. 

This was before there was a laptop on every desk. Certainly not on my desk. I was happy, then, also to have an electric typewriter; we clattered our way through at least two novels, one published, and several short stories, but I gave it away when I moved to Hudson. Fond of it as I was, it didn’t hold the same history as the Royal and was much heavier than the lightweight, which doesn’t require electricity or a battery so I save it, in case of world disaster. 

Anyway, I would, now, rather be writing my novel and so that’s what I’m going to do, and post chapters of it on this blog for you, dear reader, who might think of it as a magazine serial, albeit online. This is a dangerous thing to do and it makes me very nervous, but I think I will do it anyway. I’ll try to be consistent with characters’ names and you can tell me if I get something wrong factually. The novel remains untitled, not to mention mostly unwritten. So far the chapters are short and each has a title. I’ll run the chapters in the order that I see them, but the story goes back and forth in time. Don’t worry; just relax and enjoy it (I hope). OK, here goes, with the first chapter. 

Chapter 1 / Pot

They live in a house by the river. The Hudson River, about two hours north of the salt point, a narrow stretch that offers all the possibilities of an expanse of water along with the reassurance of another shore. The house is sturdy—brick, nothing elegant—with two big bay windows, one on either side of the front door, and it’s set just far enough above the water to avoid being swamped but close enough to be flooded with river light. Only the weather alters the light here; neither shore has changed in a hundred years.  

On this day, an afternoon in the middle of September, late in the twentieth century, the sun shines behind a thin cloud cover, casting a hazy, golden glow off the river and into the house. 

In one of the front rooms overlooking the river is a piano, a baby grand covered with a multicolored cloth woven in Cuscutlan. Every day a woman takes the cloth off the piano and plays it. Earlier this afternoon she practiced a Bach prelude in D, a ragtime song, and the second movement of Metamorphosis by Philip Glass. 

A man often listens to her play, lying on his back on the couch, legs crossed, eyes closed, in the room across the hall, or sitting in the dining room out of sight of the piano. When she finished this afternoon, he laid his cheek on the top of her head for a moment and told her, again, that he loved to hear her play. He sat next to her on the piano bench and they went over parts of what she had practiced. As a young man, he was an accomplished pianist—not professional, that wasn’t the point, but if Metamorphosis had been around then, he thinks now, it might have saved him a lot of wasted time. Now he doesn’t play it. He plays “Stardust” or other jazz songs he knows from memory, but not Metamorphosis. Not only does he think of it as hers, but also he has no interest in hearing how it would sound coming from him. 

He likes the piece though, and later when she goes out to her piano lesson he puts on the CD and sits on the broad flagstone deck at the front of the house in a metal armchair with a scalloped back. He smokes a cigarette and gazes at the river, marveling at the honeyed light and the fact that the house is theirs and he’s in it with her, not in prison or a psychiatric ward or dead half a dozen times over, but that he survived all that and now belongs here, sitting on their deck, in a comfortable lull, watching for her return. A year and a month before, she had an accident on her bicycle and was in a coma for three days. He stayed in her hospital room every minute he was allowed to, holding her hand, alternating between willing and asking that she not leave him then. She didn’t, but now in her absence he finds himself—not uneasy, but alert. 

The CD continues; the piano ripples, the river flows. A small dog trots onto the deck, a small but long-legged dog that hops onto the man’s lap in one leap. She does not curl up but sits on the man’s knee and stares in the same direction, out at the river. Pleased, the man rests his free hand on her flank. The dog belonged to the woman first, and he refers to her as his step-pet. 

A boy walks over to the porch from the house next door—for this is a row of mismatched houses built years ago on a street called Riverview. Man and boy acknowledge each other with a look, but they don’t speak. The boy pats the dog’s back, then sits on the stone steps, facing the river. He knows that if he speaks, the man will shake his head—he doesn't talk when he listens to music. 

The boy, who is 9 and called Kenny, thinks this is silly. If creepy were part of his vocabulary, he would probably use it for this music. But he finds the rest of it intriguing—the man, who has a gold tooth in the side of his mouth that flashes when he smiles, and the woman, who died but woke up again because it wasn’t her time yet, and even the dog, which has eyes like almonds and never barks. And the night before, as he played Oregontrail on the family computer, he overheard a snatch of conversation between his parents in which the man’s name, Andrew, and the words drug dealer were spoken in the same sentence, and now Kenny finds Andrew fascinating. He imagines himself asking Andrew if he is a drug dealer, if he smokes pot. That scene of Kenny’s goes no further, because he can’t believe, much as he might prefer it for the drama, that Andrew would answer yes.

He’s right. If he were to ask, Andrew would look at him directly. He would smile slightly as he shook his head and say, “No . . . why do you ask?” Kenny would shrug, his brown eyes wide, unable to convey whatever it was that made his father suspicious. 

If Andrew and Kenny could discuss this, Andrew would explain that he is not a drug dealer but a marijuana farmer—a distinction important to him—and that is why he and Annie and the dog named Chloe moved into the house by the river. 

Copyright © Debby Mayer

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Widow's Birthday

If you Google 2becomes1, the first thing you get is my blog. I’m ahead of a wedding planning service in Leeds, West Yorkshire, and a Spice Girls YouTube video.
Nevertheless, I found out recently that in the realm of circulation—attracting more readers—I’ve done this blog thing all wrong. The problem is, no one has any reason to Google 2becomes1. Unless they’re looking for the Spice Girls or a wedding planning service, in which case they aren’t thinking about widowhood. 
If I want widows all over the world to read this blog, then I should have put widow in the blog title and I should have the word widow in the title of each post. 
I worried about this for about 24 hours before assigning it to the category of Things I Don’t Have Time to Worry about Now. 
D kindly put a link to the blog on my website (, and I have a Facebook page, but I’m afraid that if I started to tweet no one would follow me and I’d be crushed, so that’s as far as I’ve gone with social media. 
In the meantime, May is my Birthday Festival Month, and as always, people sent me cards with dogs on them. Can’t imagine why . . . 
One came from Lulu . . . 
Copyright (c) Ron Schmidt

Inside, she claims to have read the books she’s sitting on. 

This one came from my brother and sister-in-law. My brother is something of a card, so to speak. 

Copyright (c) Molly & Fig
Photo copyright (c) Kim Levin
That’s all! As you were.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Four Questions of Widowhood

It’s become a sort of Ma Nishtana of widowhood, says L, whose husband, P, died in February. The Four Questions, that is, usually asked by the youngest child at the Seder and here asked by adults who might, sometimes, know better.

L, always kind, adds quickly that no one’s out of line, no one’s mean. It’s just the impact of the queries in the raw immediate aftermath. These days, she says, she can bat them back, without feeling punched or overwhelmed.

1.How are you? 
Said in earnest tones with pleading eyes, as in please be all right. And L would sometimes think . . . relative to what?

But, paradoxically . . . 

2.What are you going to do now? What's next? Nothing mean was intended, L says again, but it sounded as if I had closed a chapter and was now ready to move on . . . not true at all, and surely going through a terminal illness with a beloved spouse is not a chapter, to be opened and closed at will.
3. Are you going back to Hyde Park?
(Back story: L was a longtime archival volunteer at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, NY. She had an extra security clearance. She was their top volunteer; they gave her a plaque, they took her picture, they would have sent her to Washington for more awards, more pictures, but she’s too self-effacing for such events and didn’t go.)

That’s the one that got me in those first weeks, she says. I haven’t been to HP in almost two years . . . leaving there was propelled by a crisis in P’s health . . . again, the unintended harshness, as if I could just go back to where I was before . . . as if I have not been altered . . .

4. Are you selling the house? Are you going to move?
 L offers no comment on this, and it leaves me speechless too. One, it’s none of your business. Two, unless you’re standing there with cash in hand, it’s none of your business. Three, P died on February 23; not 100 days have passed! Yes, the house is large, but it’s paid for. The widow sits in familiar surroundings, closes her eyes, takes a breath.

In fact, L doesn’t sit around much and she is starting to reach out, to think about what to do next. She decided against taking the training to be an ombudsman for nursing home residents; too close. But a book club sounds interesting, and she’s having lunch with a friend from the Roosevelt library . . .

                           *                  *                  *
It’s been a hard year so far, for men in particular. I write condolence notes in batches. Five new widows (to quote myself, we are legion). And R’s father, a widower. And M, widowed in ’07. I have no guidelines for talking to the survivors; silence often works.