out of the ashes

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Part Two


Isabella shoos “Jack” off the table. He scurries to a spot at the narrow table’s corner, stops and looks back at us almost defiantly. He pauses before raring back slightly, and then jumps up. I wonder if he was there at dinnertime last night. Or over here.
The dining table is white and clean, except for those places where the damned cat walked or sat. A fresh vase of colorful flowers sits dead center. Four place settings of white china and silver have been laid out, with sparkling glasses, close together so that the four of us can enjoy talking about…what do we talk about? Plaids and solids? I don’t want to talk to Frank or Michael, nor do I want to eat here, really, but then again, I don’t want not to be beside Isabella. The promise, the excitement of creating—recreating—the ending of a novel, with real color and texture and an internal life uncontaminated by plainness and convention is palpable. I can smell it and taste it this morning in the presence of Isabella. Gardenia and rose and sweet orange chocolate. A drab garment of me has fallen to the floor, and I sense poetry writing itself in my heart. I swallow my Monk fetish for a sterile environment and hope that my immune system can handle the ship’s hold of germs unloaded by the disgusting cat with the un-feline name. I can create something worth reading again, and we’ll begin—the two of us— after a breakfast of…gag… yogurt and fruit.
I crave bacon, and eggs, sunnyside up.
I quickly move the dishes and silver that Frank and Michael will use down one place while Isabella strokes the cat’s back. Jack lifts his tail and rear end high, as though he’s preparing to launch a fart at the ceiling. I have no use for cats.
I place the manuscript on the table next to where Isabella will sit, slide her high-backed chair out, and wait patiently until she has finished congratulating the animal with her fingernails for having fouled the linen we’re about to eat on. I am not a hater of cats, but if Jack should decide to jump back up onto the breakfast table again after Isabella has sat down, I’ll have no compunctions about stabbing him with my fork. Or better, Michael’s—who has now entered the room slobbering and boo-hooing, and who, it looks, will be sitting to my left again. He is positively Shakespearean, and daubs his eyes with a lacy handkerchief as he walks dolefully along the table, one hand extended toward its top for safety sake in case his legs falter and he begins to collapse. Frank walks calmly on the opposite side, reserved, seemingly unaffected by his lover’s near hysteria. I wonder what Mrs. Davenport said to them?
Beginning to answer my unasked question, Michael lowers the handkerchief from his eyes to cover his nose and mouth, and says in a rumpled, muffled voice, “She’s a wicked woman.” He turns to Frank, who doesn’t seem to be paying attention. Michael goes on, “I think we should simply pack our things and leave, Sweetie.”
Frank greets Isabella and me, cursorily, and then shakes his head with what I interpret as mild disgust as he answers his Michael. He half-whispers, but I catch the drift of it. “You are so stupid sometimes, Michael. Asking her,” he whispers, now, but I have excellent hearing, “…for a rope with knots in it or a horse whip! Do you think she’s ignorant? And then your loud mouth all night long…” He stops. Isabella cannot help herself. She cracks up—her hearing is as good as mine, I guess—which sends Michael into another fit of crying, and makes Frank throw up his hands in defeat. I look over at Jack, who is staring over at me, and control my laughter with great effort. Poor Frank.
That fucking cat.
Mrs. Davenport has Mr. Davenport deliver the food. We eat, avoiding anything in our conversation dealing with horse gear or sex gear. Michael eats very little and cries a lot.

I am not full, not at all, but I excuse Isabella and myself after we finish, grab the pages of the manuscript covered with Michael’s tears, and we head off to the sitting room at the front of the lodge. Jack meows and follows along. The room smells of old fire; ash, and an almost bitter earthiness, not breathing. Cold. It is a good day for a fire and I consider emptying the grate of its burnt pine carcasses and starting a brand new, warm and cheery blaze. I’ll sit a little closer, instead, to Isabella, and I’ll read to her.
We sit near the fireplace at the end of the sofa farthest from the windows. If I reach over my body with my left hand I can easily touch her. I adjust my butt on the cushion, cross one leg in a manly fashion, then turn to her.
“Read quickly, Mr. Ash. I will listen and take notes in my head; offer my take on the writing at the end of each chapter.”
So formal all of the sudden. She leans back and closes her eyes, and after admiring her thick, dark eyelashes too long, I begin to read in a clear, mellifluous voice.
“Sylvia Ortin stepped out of the mall entrance door, stopped under the covered area in the wind, and snapped her blue floral umbrella open. The sky hung gray and low, almost kissing the square, flat roofline of the building, and droplets of rain splattered onto the uncompromising surface of the concrete walkway all the way out to the gutter, and then into the endless parking lot beyond. She had just finished shopping for Daniel at Macy’s, for his twenty-fifth birthday…”
Five minutes later I end the reading, “…not knowing, not caring whether her blond hair got wet, or if the passing traffic mowed her down like wheat in a pregnant Nebraska field.” I want to sigh. Even though I know the book falls apart in the middle, and definitely at the finish line, that opening scene has always moved me. Poor, poor Sylvia. What a terrific opening ten pages.
Isabella sits looking at me, her lips pursed, the rest of her face stoic, or blank. I think she’s moved. I expect to see a tear forming at the corner of her eye, but—not yet. She has to digest the loveliness of this part of the book. Probably the only really excellent example of what I’m capable of. At last she moves her folded hands, and then slowly turns her head so that I can see her entire face as clearly as Sylvia sees the gray world she’s trapped in. Isabella speaks:
“Her husband beats her. She meets a house painter—a house painter? Of all the occupations you could have picked for this Daniel, why that?”
I begin to explain the significance of Daniel’s chosen trade in the novel, but she breaks in.
“Well enough, I suppose, but to have her daydreaming about their first meeting, seeing one another for the first time at a construction site. Love at first sight? At a construction site, in an unfinished house littered with paint cans and empty beer bottles? And all of this reminiscing taking place while she’s driving in a rainstorm on a busy street? Why would she believe her bald-headed, fat husband is going to beat her when she gets home, too? And the wreck. Do you really think women like me are going to identify with her after you’ve put her in such an unbelievably saccharine, melodramatic—absolutely low-life situation?”
I never thought of it in quite that way. From that perspective. But I defend myself because my book is me, even if I know deep down that it needs some fine tuning. Sylvia is Everywoman, and I know, also, that the tragedy of her life becomes absolutely clear as I drag the plot along. Isabella just hasn’t read far enough. But then again, I think sadly, maybe she has.
“I’ve just waded through ten pages of a famous author’s new book. I’m sitting in an easy chair at the bookstore, hoping I will like…no, love this new one. Maybe I was disappointed with his last book, maybe not, but I need a reason to be moved by the images in this book, the dynamics of the main character, the hopelessness she feels. I need to be shaken in some way, and Sylvia simply doesn’t have what it takes to do it. For certain, sex in an unfinished house in the first chapter is just too weird. And wheat in a…” she giggles, “…in a pregnant Nebraska field? I have serious difficulty with that image. I return the book to its place in the hot current releases rack and forget about Matthew Ash’s latest offering.”
I am shocked. I am disappointed and shocked. Isabella doesn’t understand, even though I set the scene beautifully and gave the reader…okay, maybe the construction site part was a little too over-the-top. I can easily change that and have them make love on their second meeting, somewhere else…at her house or his, or at McDonald’s in the ladies room. An author, a truly gifted author, has to be inventive. I can change that part of the scene.
“What else?”
“You are an award winning writer. Your opening chapter is weak, and unrealistic to the point of being offensive. The language you use, both in the narrative and the dialogue, is substandard at best. Why? Is that the best that the great Matthew Ash can come up with?”
Isabella says this with conviction. I am being pulled through the wringer, and suddenly it hits me that maybe she’s incapable of being my editor. She probably hasn’t read enough great literature. Then on the heels of that thought, another; that maybe she is hitting the nail squarely on the head. I don’t want to rewrite the book. I can’t. I don’t have enough time and, truthfully, I’m sick of Sylvia and Daniel and the dwarf on the horse who stalks them. I just want to get those last chapters finished and get the manuscript to my editor. My real editor who will love it. I don’t care if it stinks. I want very badly to write the words, “The End”.
“Why does this Sylvia have such a dirty mouth? Matthew, you must change her name and also give her a little more dignity. At least Isabelle was an attractive name, even though she was a…” Isabella doesn’t finish the sentence.
“Tell you what. Let me have the pages. I’ll lock myself in my room and read them over the next couple of days. I need to see her character in context, see how you tell the story with her. The dilemma she creates, or that fate throws at her. All of it as a whole. I need to read it. If the rest of your book is like your numbing opening chapter, it’s my opinion that we’ll have to trash it and start all over again. But, let me read it first.”
Isabella stands up, and Jack comes flying across the room to join her. She’s bold, I’ll give her that. I’ve just been insulted, but the words “we’ll have to” send goosebumps racing up my arms and down my back. Isabella extends her hand, not for mine, I know, but for the pages. This has become very too professional all of the sudden. I reluctantly hand her my six-eyed child and question in my own mind whether “we” will be able to type “The End” in the next week at all. I’m deflated. Limp. I wanted to finish it by this evening.
“Let me sit with you in your room. I won’t say a thing unless you ask me to—ask me to explain something that you’ve just read.” I think she’ll melt after a few more chapters, honestly, and well before chapter twenty she’ll be in my arms. I can begin to finish the goddam book later, after she leaves.
“No. Stay in your room and do what you do best. Write. Just think about the word “campy”. Keep it in mind. Write the ending, good, bad, or whatever. I’ll read and make notes on what I have here and get back to you tonight at dinner, then maybe tomorrow we can read your ending—if you can devise one—and talk a little about what you might want to do to salvage this thing.”
Not even my editor would dare…but, okay. I have no choice. I have to be patient.
Isabella touches my hand as Jack rubs his side against her leg.
“You asked me to help. I’ll do it, but I won’t be kind if kindness is all your looking for. By the time I’m finished with you and your book, you’ll have a Pulitzer prize winner. Your main character won’t be named Sylvia, either.” She laughs gently. Gently, so that my feelings remain somewhat intact, and then she brushes her fingers along my hand, turns, and walks toward the stairs. Jack is right on her heels, lucky bastard. I remain standing for a moment, watching her ascend the stairs like a breeze clothed in moonlight. The gray cloud dances along right behind her.

(c) Patrick Sean Lee, 2010

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Tuesday...Something new

I hope it's okay to have a slight case of writer's block, 'cuz I do.

Marvin is finished, save the small touches and last chapter revision. I want to leave it be for a spell so that I can let it simmer. And then it's back to the whole book read-through; the final rewrite.

I've been writing short stories lately, 3-4,000 words. I think I'd like to have you read one of them here, in two installments. 2,000 or so words each. CB edited for me, and I really thank her. Not only is she a great writer, she has that keen editor's eye that we all need so badly.
Thanks, CB.

Matthew and Isabella


I slept well last night except for the pain in my knee that woke me three times, the need to pee that woke me another, and the image of Isabella that kept me up during the time in between those. Yet I am refreshed. The wine sat well—a 2003 vintage Chateau St. Michelle. Hardly what I might have expected from an out-of-the-way mountain lodge, and its selection by the Davenports lifted my opinion of them from earthy all the way to complex. Mrs. Davenport might prefer coffee sludge from a percolator, but her taste in fine wine showed nothing of that peculiarity.
I am not a religious or superstitious man, but the entire day seemed driven, or at least prodded on, by hands outside my range of knowledge. If not by divine ordinance, then by what command did I stumble into the orbit of Isabella Glenbard? Simple fate cannot explain it adequately. Neither can prayer, as I have forgotten, even, the words to grace before dinner. But then, what?
No matter. She is at this wonderful lodge, and so am I. And she is going to help me write. I think she will also become my lover.
It is four fifty-eight a.m. Here I lay, my eyes following an imaginary spot on the ceiling that moves along one minute, and then is thrust back to its starting point the moment I blink. As though it had never moved to begin with. My brain, however, is following the movement of Isabella; the raising of her hand, the turn of her head that makes her hair hesitate before following, the forming of a smile. I need not concentrate or force the images, needn’t try to keep them in focus, unmoving, captive. They do not wander, but rather hold themselves constant, like shadows in the moonlight that refuse to be shaken off the ground.
I feel the soft touch of her. The sensation of fingers that inadvertently brushed against mine is here with me, occurring again, again, again, as though she stands invisible before me with the intent to conquer me in yet another way.
She has, and probably doesn’t even realize it.
It is five a.m. A soft glow of silver has begun to make the features of my room lighten to the point where the bathroom door is identifiable, and other objects, as well. The chair with my pants draped over it and the table beneath the window are the most clear, and I notice that I didn’t fold my pants last night. I admit to myself that I was, and am, perhaps, a little obsessed.
Isabella of Glenbard Manor. Queen Isabella. Lady of the Lake. Authoress and Muse.
Not Isabelle.
I rise and force my bum leg to follow the one that works to the bathroom. I look at the tub and think it would be wise to soak the still-swollen knee for an hour or so. I’d like that, and would no doubt benefit from it, but I have a book to finish. And then it hits me. How can I show her the high school grammar of it, the grade school plotting? I wish for a brief second that I’d never asked her to help me—I mean, seriously, what can she actually know about characterization and story-arc? About how to write in motion, with style and flare and an intriguing voice? Even knowing none of this, I’m afraid she’ll hate it all, I know it, every word of it. I can see her rising from the end of the bed where she spent the day wading through the pages, shaking her head at me, then tossing the manuscript onto the floor. Then she leaves, laughing. “Didn’t I tell you, Matthew Ash? You’re a hack!”
I turn my head and look back at the bed in the next room. My tendency to imagine awakens in a finer focus, and I begin to seriously imagine. But that is after the words, “The End” are keyed in on my laptop. I think it will be afterwards. Tomorrow. For now, to work.
Her fingertips are soft.
I shower, brush my teeth, and scowl at the wrinkles forming beneath my drooping eyes—yes, I am honestly sleepy, bleary-eyed. That condition makes me think irrationally.
I look terrible, like a hundred year-old man—and I shave in scalding water at the sink bowl. When I finish and splash on a little cologne, the guy in the fog-edged mirror smiles out at me. He looks to be only seventy or so now. That’s better, if not exactly good, and I return his courtesy.
I leave the light on and return to the bedroom where I notice the distinctly rectangular shape of a folded piece of paper protruding under the space between the entry door and the dark of the carpet. Isabella. She has left me…something. Is it a decline, “No, I’ve reconsidered,” with an apology? Or perhaps an invitation, slipped under the door just seconds before I turned out the light last night? Yes, it is that, and I curse my having failed to notice it the moment she slid it in for me. I walk over and tug it quickly from under the crack under the door, then rubbing my knee with one hand, I flip open the folded page with the other, counterbalancing the stab of pain.
Printed letterhead of Roosevelt Lodge.
Breakfast served from seven a.m. until nine a.m.; continental, or a heart-seizing Midwest mish-mash of bacon, sausage, ham, roast beef, eggs, French toast, Maple syrup, potatoes, gravy—Christ alive!—or a variety of fresh fruits. I know what Isabella will choose, and though my stomach screams for the Midwest killer, I’ll take the cantaloupe and grapefruit, too.
For some reason I lay the menu aside and open the door to the hall. Her room stands straight across from mine, and I am surprised. A yellow glow is visible beneath her door. I stare at the line of light as though I expect her to come floating out with the warm glow. She does not, but a quick, faint shadow joins the yellow light, moving from right to left, and then back again in the opposite direction a second later. She is awake. I find myself glued to the possible image of her beyond the rough wood of the door. Her hair is un-brushed, dangling and provocatively unkempt. Her lipstick and eyeliner have long ago vanished. She is more beautiful in its absence, I think, and I say so in a longing whisper. Her nightgown is satiny, mid-thigh, and clings so provocatively that she instinctively raises her arms to cover her breasts, outlined in alluring shadows and perfect contours against the material. She blushes, but I do not—
And suddenly the door opens.
Isabella reacts with something between total surprise and anger. There I stand again, leering, a perverse fool. I was correct, though. Her hair is hanging loose, toussled, and her eyeliner has gone away. Isabella is incredibly fresh and beautiful at five in the morning.
Her eyes narrow, but this time I’m ready.
“Good morning, Isabella.”
She blinks twice, quickly, and stands with one hand on the door, the other clasping her terrycloth robe closed at the neck. She doesn’t open her mouth, but neither does she step back inside and slam the door. She’s waiting for an explanation, and so I begin:
“I saw the edge of the menu sticking into my room under the door. I couldn’t pull it in, so I opened the door and picked it up,” I lie. I lift the paper and hold it out for her to see. She lets her eyes drop to it, then they return to mine. “I noticed a light beneath your door and wondered if you…I mean I figured you must be up…but it’s only past five a little…” I’m winning. Her countenance softens, and I think she believes me. Well, it’s true anyway, except that her bathrobe isn’t…well, yes it is…quite as alluring in its own way. I find her entrancing in terry cloth.
“I didn’t sleep well,” she offers.
“Neither did I.”
What did she mean?
“I think it was the wine, though it should have had the opposite effect. It was a good wine, though. I enjoyed it very much,” she says.
She curves the corners of her lips upward very quickly. I’m not sure what that gesture is all about, but I like it very much. It is another facet of her endless variety of hypnotic features. I find myself unsure of exactly what to say, where to go next, and so I hesitate a bit too long for comfort and shift my eyes from her as though I were embarrassed.
“I, umm…I’d better get dressed,” she says, and the words are a relief from the silence, but they are not what I would have wished her to say. She smiles in a diffident way, a way that I’ve yet to see from her, and then she backs into her room and begins to close the door. I have less than a second to salvage the moment—I think waiting until “The End” is a foolish idea. I begin to open my mouth, to invite her over flatly, but the door closes with a click, and so does my opportunity.
“We can have breakfast at seven…” Together.
I stand and stare at her door for some time, hoping she’ll return and open it, but I know that she will not. I hear the faint sound of water begin its rush through the pipes in her room, see no more shadows crossing in the light under her door, wait a bit longer, then re-enter my room and go to the bathroom. I think I’ll soak my knee.

Precisely at six fifty-eight I open my door and cross the hall. The window to my left with its lace-edge curtains tied back allows a hazy light to fall through. It’s overcast outside, a perfect day to stay inside and disassemble my latest disaster, “Somewhere In Love”. As I tap on her door the thought occurs to me that maybe I will set Isabella down on one of the sofas in the sitting room and read what I’ve written to her. I’ve done so many readings at garden clubs and book events that I’ve developed a voice that is capable of hypnotizing a cobra. I know my writing, know where to inflect my voice for maximum impact. I’ll inflect upon Isabella.
She answers immediately, as though she’d been standing on the other side with her hand on the knob, waiting for me to knock.
“Good morning again,” I say with too much enthusiasm. She is wearing form fitting designer jeans and a sleeveless, light gray top with a wide, black band of sparkling beads bordering the swoop at the neck. I try to memorize the look so that I can dress my feckless main character, Sylvia, in just this way if I ever get to the next chapter. Isabella’s long hair is nearly brushed—but not quite, which is the fashion I guess, and not a disregard for coiffure. It rests across her bare shoulders in winsome collections of strands. My eyes widen and I am forced by the sight of her to suck in a breath of air.
I have the thick bundle of hardcopy in my right hand, and I raise it for her to see.
“Ah yes, the sick novel with yet another tainted lady? Let’s get something to eat, then we’ll start,” she says matter-of-factly.
I’m delighted, and as we walk down the hall I smell a different perfume. Very light and sweet, not Calyx, not at all overwhelming, but nice. When we reach the end of the hall and begin to descend the stairs I hear a muffled voice and then the opening of a door. Michael emerges from his and Frank’s room, number Two. He is saying something about floral prints, the Weinbergs, and how none of it will work—not at all. I glance at Isabella and she begins to giggle, then we dance down the stairs more quickly. She half-whispers:
“They’ve been fighting over prints versus solids for some job back in Ohio for a solid week. I don’t know for sure what Frank wants, but my money is on him; whatever he wants. I’m pretty sure he’s the tempering half of that equation, the real designer.”
Mrs. Davenport is waiting for us at the bottom of the stairs. Her elephantine figure is graced by a loud, floral print dress, pink and yellow posies showing off where the white waist apron she wears allows. She looks up at Isabella and me—or past us. I’m not sure. I think she’s watching Adam and Eve who are spitting at one another and have reached the top of the stairs, quarreling over the plaids versus prints, or prints versus solids, or whatever. Wait till they see Mrs. Davenport’s dress. When we arrive at the bottom of the staircase she steps aside, and her plain, black, lace-up shoes make a squeaking noise on the waxed floor.
“Good morning Isabella, Mr. Ash.” She nods twice but says nothing else. Her eyes are still locked on Frank and Michael who are approaching the end of the landing. Her face shows no emotion, although her hair, piled up like a swirling silver turban, makes her look attack-ready. I look at Isabella. She shrugs, and we hurry off to the dining room. I don’t know what she’s going to say to them, or if she intends to say anything. Maybe she’s just pissed because the day is overcast.
Isabella grabs my elbow at the doorway and places a finger to her lips. Ssh!
Ssh, don’t speak? Or ssh, don’t ask questions? I raise my eyebrows in question nonetheless. She laughs. “Michael tends to be a little noisy late at night up there.”
I think I understand.
We walk quickly to the end of the table where we sat last evening. A gray cat with white paws raises his head when he sees us, and meows. He is sitting on top of the table and doesn’t seem to mind our approach. I guess that he’s the housecat, another member of the family, but I recoil at the thought of him walking all over the linen tablecloth with feet that have traipsed through his piss and excrement.
(c) Patrick Sean Lee, 2010