Wednesday, July 29, 2009


In Which I Stall for Time...

Busy day/week/life here at the Magazine Mansion, and more going on than I can articulate. So instead of giving you any news about my planets-in-alignment opportunity, I thought I would cleverly distract you with another sample chapter from my book. A lot of folks wanted to see something about my mom, and I would say this fits the bill. It's not the funniest or sharpest piece of writing I've ever done, but of everything I've written in the past few months, it's the story I'm fondest of, probably because it's the closest I've ever come to capturing the kind of person my mother was when I was growing up.

Also, it has the added advantage of featuring a famous incident (at least in my family) involving my brother and the time Mom tried to put him on a diet.

Hope you like it:

Iron Mom

Whenever my mother plugged in the iron, my brother and I knew we had two choices: Get very quiet. Or get out of the house.

Mom said she did her best problem-solving behind the ironing board, and I guess that was true enough, because when she wasn’t behind that board, she was busy creating whole new problems, problems that never would have occurred to me to worry about if she hadn’t brought them up. She was forever drilling us on potentially life-threatening situations—what to do if we fell through the ice, or were buried alive, or had to escape from the car if it ever flipped over and caught fire. That was the only one that really bothered me, not because I couldn’t figure a way out, but because Mom said, “Whatever you do, run and don’t stop. Just leave me behind.” She might as well have said, “Stand by uselessly and watch me burn to death,” because that was the image that stuck in my head.

But it must have eased her mind in some way, because she did this for years, constantly surprising us with ever stranger and unlikelier scenarios, needling us for instant answers to see if our survival instinct was sufficiently honed. There I’d be, reading a comic book in the back seat of the car, minding my own business as we drove somewhere, when suddenly she’d say, “What would you do if there were burglars upstairs and you were trapped in the basement?”

BB would get all rigid next to me, like one of those pointer dogs that’s finally found a bird in the bushes. “Ooh, I know! Pull all the fuses so when they came down to check the power, I’d sneak out,” he’d say, then give me a satisfied nod as if to say, Beat that.

“Not bad,” Mom would reply. “But suppose you were tied up in the corner? Then what? You think about that for a minute. Now it’s your brother’s turn. MM? Put that down and listen. What would you do if you were trapped in the basement…”

I sighed hugely across her. “Ma, we don’t have a basement,” I said. It was true. All we had was a tiny little crawlspace under the house and I was never going down there.

“Don’t interrupt. Now, listen! What would you do if you were trapped in the basement and it started flooding?” I gave it the moment’s consideration I thought it warranted. Aside from having no basement, none of us could swim either.

"Well?" Mom demanded after half a second. "What would you do?"

“Drown,” I answered. Mom got angry at me for that.

When I was little it seemed like anger—not the need to think or solve problems--was what drove Mom to iron the most. And she could be mad for hours at a time. You only had to look at our clothes to tell this. Everything in our closets, all our school shirts and pants, our jeans, even our t-shirts and underwear, were all starchy-smelling and folded or creased like they had just come from the cleaners. Even though she ironed every day, Mom’s clothes hamper in the living room was almost always full. If she pressed her way through our clothes, she moved on to her own, then Dad’s last of all—construction workers didn’t have a lot of clothes that took well to ironing. When she put the hissing iron to the arms of Dad’s work shirts, even freshly laundered, you could smell the sweat coming off them.

She used to tell us that being a grown-up was more complicated than we ever appreciated, that every day she and Dad had new problems to solve. “But often as not, I’m the only one who wants to solve them!” she’d say mysteriously, her voice rising at the end of the sentence. Then she’d slam something down—a plate or a heavy book, maybe. If that wasn’t satisfying enough, she’d go rummage around in the kitchen cabinets, usually the lower ones, where she kept the big metal pots and pans and could get some good clanging noises out of them. But after a while of banging around in there, she’d come out to the living room, set up her board, plug in her old black-and-nickel plated Sunbeam, and set the dial way over to the side marked “Steam.”

Sometimes she would ask me to read one of her magazines to her, so I’d pick my way through the stories in Reader’s Digest (I liked the humor pieces. Mom was a big fan of the “Drama in Real Life” disaster stories). I’d have to look up occasionally to see what she was ironing, knowing that if she got to my clothes, it was time to go to the bathroom and forget to come back. For Mom, there was a very literal connection between what she was ironing and what she was thinking about, mad or not. When she was working the wrinkles out of your clothes, she was apt to start working some wrinkles out of you. If I was too slow to notice that she was pressing my slacks, I’d have to sit and get an earful about my smart mouth or some pointers on how to make my teachers like me better (these pointers nearly always seemed to involve me talking less and listening more).

Not long after he sent me to the hospital, Mom spent a lot of time ironing BB’s clothes, thinking about all the times he flew off the handle and thumped me, or talked too fast to be understood, or couldn’t settle down at night (for some reason, he kept having bad dreams about being buried alive or trapped under ice). After talking with Dad about it, Mom announced that BB was going to see a special doctor, a psychiatrist. “Oh, like Lucy in the Charlie Brown comics,” I said. “You pay her a nickel and she tells you your problems.”

Dad shook his head sadly. “This one’s gonna cost a lot more than a nickel,” he said.

He was right. The doctor told my parents that BB was hyperactive, which I could have told them for free. My brother never sat still. It was frustrating. You’d be playing Hot Wheels or building a block tower and he’d freak out if a car turned over or a block fell. Then he’d smash up the track and knock down the blocks and then thump me just because. The doctor gave him some medicine—it didn’t work, it made him more hyper than ever. Then he recommended a school in Manchester for kids with special problems--like being a spaz and hitting your brother all the time. On BB’s first day of school, the teacher complimented him on his neat appearance and his crisp, unwrinkled clothes. He got a little better about the spaz thing, too. The psychiatrist had told BB that when he started to get excited or found himself in a stressful situation, he needed to take a deep breath and focus on the problem, instead of just yelling or lashing out. And it worked: I discovered it often took me five or six good insults before I got BB mad enough to actually try to hit me.

But Mom wasn’t done fixing my brother yet. One afternoon, while ironing clothes she found stuffed in the back of BB’s closet, she suddenly said to him, “You don’t wear these clothes because they’re too tight. You’re too big, that’s your problem,” she told him. “I was husky like you when I was younger, but I started watching what I ate. You will too.” That was a great week, the week she started my brother on a diet. The best part was the night he came back from the kitchen with his third helping of chicken and rice and Mom, remembering that she was trying to slim my brother down, snatched his plate away and took it back to the kitchen. “She took my food!” he cried, looking across the table at me. “Now you know how it feels,” I said, stuffing my mouth with a big load of chicken. You wouldn’t think you could smile and chew at the same time, but you'd be wrong.

In the end, the crash diet didn’t work. For one thing, BB started getting up at night and sneaking food from the kitchen. And not just sneaking, but hiding it. One morning, I reached in my dresser drawer for a fresh pair of underpants and knew something was wrong when crumbs fell out of the crotch. I yelled for Mom as I always did when there was a problem with the laundry service. She took one look at the crumbs and began pulling all my crisp, neatly pressed underpants out of the top drawer and shaking them. Towards the back, chocolate chip cookies started falling out.

That’s when BB walked in from the bathroom. He took in the scene, then took a deep breath. He calmly turned to me and said, “So Mom finally found out where you were hiding the cookies, huh?” Even in my rage and indignation, I had to admire my brother’s self-control in that moment of crisis, but Mom still saw right through him. “How could you hide food in your brother’s underwear drawer?” she cried. BB glared at her for one whole second, then collapsed. “I had to!” he cried. “My drawers are already full!” After she made him put all the food back in the pantry, Mom punished BB by teaching him how to load the washer and dryer, starting with my Fruit-of-the-Looms. From then on, it was his job to bring the fresh clothes directly to the ironing hamper and keep it topped off.

A few times a month, we’d find Mom ironing stuff at the bottom of the basket and we knew she and Dad had probably had a big fight, usually over the checkbook, which Dad kept in a secret place and wouldn’t give her. Those times, Mom would get all the way down to the linen napkins that we only used at Thanksgiving, bed sheets for the guest room, and a stack of old cloth squares that had a curious combination of faded black and yellow stains and delicately embroidered initials. “What are those?” I once asked her, when I was 5 or 6, before I was old enough to know better than to talk to her when she had an iron in her hand.

“Handkerchiefs,” she’d say grimly, mashing the iron onto them. “Vintage linen and hand-stitched. They belonged to your great-grandpa. He was a smart man. Good with money. He left quite a bit to your grandmother. He died before you were born. But these old hankies are still good. Someone should get the use of them.” I don’t know who she thought that someone would be, but it wasn’t going to be me. Looking at those old stained hankies, it was only too easy to imagine that with one blow, you’d inhale whatever killed great-grandpa and die all sneezing and bloody. Anyway, I didn’t need a hanky. That’s what long sleeves were for.

Once, in late fall, when the weather turned cold, we came home from school to find the house exceptionally bright. It took us a minute to figure it out, but then we realized that all the windows were bare, although even out here in the breezeway they were all slightly steamed over. BB and I looked at each other, then he crept into the swirling mist coming from the living room while I stayed by the front door. He came back fast, his eyes wide. “The basket’s empty. Mom’s ironing all the curtains now,” he reported. We put our coats back on and played outside until Mom called us in for supper.

That was the day we found out that Dad had no job.

“Well, you’ve had no job before. You just went down to the union hall and got another one, right?” BB said to Dad, as we sat quietly at supper that night. The table had a stiff white tablecloth on it that I’d never seen before. Cloth napkins too. They were still warm and smelled slightly of hot steam.

“That’s true,” Dad said, nodding. He wasn’t looking at anyone, especially Mom. He was staring at his beer bottle, was in fact peeling the label from the bottle, letting bits fall onto his plate. “That’s true, but there isn’t a lot of new work happening in New Hampshire anymore.” He took a deep breath and kept not looking at Mom. “And we don’t have much in the bank right now, so if we want to keep on the way we are, I’m going to have to go sign on with one of the big construction companies doing work up in Maine. Or Canada, maybe. What would you do if we moved there?” he asked.

“Canada?!?” BB cried, looking to Mom, I guess to see if this was another of her disaster scenarios. But Mom just stared down at the tablecloth, smoothing a crease over and over with her hand.

“But what about going up to Springfield? Finishing the cabin and living up on the Hill?” I asked.

Dad looked up then. “Hill’s not going anywhere. We’ll always, always have that. And you know that’ll always be home, no matter where we end up living. It’s just, if I want to make money, I have to go where the work is. And there’s none left for me here in New Hampshire. Believe me, I’ve looked.” Mom got up then, her supper unfinished. She started to go toward the living room and the ironing board that was still set up, the iron still sitting on it. Halfway between the dining room and the living room, she stopped. I could see the hamper was empty. She’d ironed everything in the house, except the clothes on our backs. She walked over to the board, picked up the iron and for a second I thought she was just going to start running the iron across the empty board, which I knew meant she’d finally had the nervous breakdown she’d been swearing we’d drive her to all these years. But she didn’t. Or if she did, it was an unsatisfyingly quiet one, because she just flipped the board closed—one-handed, like the pro ironer she was. Then, holding the iron in both hands, she wordlessly took it into the bedroom and closed the door behind her.

The next morning, it was like nothing unusual had happened. Dad was already gone when we got up for school and Mom seemed fine, if quiet, as she gave us our lunchboxes and herded us out the door to catch our ride. But when we got home that afternoon, things were different again. Not different like Mom had ripped the curtains off the windows, but still, different. For one thing, there were a few dishes in the sink—Mom never let a dish or glass or dirty fork sit for more than 12 seconds in her sink. For another thing, Mom wasn’t ironing.

But she was at the ironing board. Only instead of leaning over a shirt or a pair of slacks or my great-grandpa’s hankies, she had stacks of envelopes and papers spread out all over the board. In one hand, she held a pencil, which she gently tapped on the board. In the other hand, she held a rectangular object I didn’t recognize at first. It was the checkbook. She stared at it, then scribbled something on the sheet of paper in front of her. Then she picked up an envelope, peeked inside, and started writing something else down.

“Oh, you’re home already,” she said, finally noticing us and, apparently, the time. “Well, your father said to say goodbye. He got a call from a work friend and had to leave for Maine right away. He’ll call us tonight, and if he gets the job, he’ll stay up there and come home on weekends, I think.” She looked back down at the checkbook. “I’ll start supper in a minute, but I have to finish something here, so you two can help out.” She pointed at me with the pencil. “There’s some dishes in the sink that you can wash and put away. And BB, go get the laundry out of the dryer. It’s just yours and your brother’s clothes, so please put them away in the right drawers.”

As I walked back to the kitchen and got the step-stool so I could reach the sink, I heard BB say, “You don’t want them in the ironing basket first?”

“No,” Mom said in a calm but faraway voice that made it clear her attention was on the checkbook. “Just fold them and put them away.” As BB went out to the laundry room, I got the dish soap out from under the sink, then climbed up on the stool and turned on the hot water.

Not long after that, I had a dream that we were in the car, all of us. Mom was driving and Dad was in the passenger seat. Then I heard some tires screeching like in the movies and suddenly we were upside down. I heard flames crackling but couldn’t see them. The car was filling with smoke. I couldn’t see BB next to me. Up in front, the passenger seat was empty; Dad was already gone. I should have been scared, but I wasn't. I knew the way out of this: I turned, put both feet together and kicked hard at the passenger window. It exploded in tiny kernels, like it did the time Dad locked his keys in the truck and had to break the glass. I clambered out and started to run, but then I remembered my mother.

I turned and she was still in the driver’s seat, hands on the steering wheel. The crackling got louder, then the whole car caught fire. “You go on,” she called through the flames in a voice that sounded far away, but calm as anything. “You get clear,” she said.

I ran then, my heart in my throat. I ran, even though I knew she was on fire. I couldn’t see it, but I could smell it, like hot steam rising.


Well, there you go.

As for other developments, I hope to have more to tell you soon, perhaps this weekend. We'll see.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Thursday, July 23, 2009


In Which We Offer A Taste...

So, here's the chapter I promised. It's from early in my book, which I guess I should tell you is sort of a memoir about growing up in New Hampshire, but is mostly about being raised to tell stories, by people who were themselves master storytellers. In fact, each chapter is its own story, each building on the next until the whole thing adds up to the book my parents always told me I'd write.

This will read a little different than my usual blog post. When I post, I give very little thought to structure; I do almost no rewriting or editing after the fact. What you get is a rough draft. This here is a first draft, a little more polished and rounded out. Or at least it ought to be. Jesus, I sure hope so.

And now that we come to it, I feel weirdly self-conscious sharing this with you. I guess it's good that I care that much about it, but weird too. Anyway, have a look:


My parents bought my brother for 150 bucks.

That sounds like a real bargain at today’s baby prices, but in 1965, at my father’s hourly rate at the welding shop, that was more than two weeks’ pay. Dad was not an extravagant man and large expenditures—anything above, say, $17.50—were an affront to his sense of thrift, easily the keenest of all his senses, except for maybe his eyesight. But he questioned even that when he got the bill that fall from the Elliott Hospital in Manchester. He was so stunned he made Mom read it back to him to confirm the amount. Then he had to go out and rake leaves for an hour.

“Spent that hour trying to remember where the receipt was. Thought we might be able to return him,” he’d say every year on my brother’s birthday, as he’d tellabout how the 150-dollar baby came to live with him and Mom.

“Why didn’t you?” I once asked when I was seven. For $150, my parents could have bought me a good bike or a used motorcycle or something and spared me seven years of torture and pain beyond anything my parents or any other child could ever understand.

“Well, it was too late,” Dad said to me with a freshly stunned look, inviting me to share his astonishment. “We’d already named him—and after me. It’s like getting your initials monogrammed on a sweater—can’t bring it back to the store after that.” I nodded, understanding instantly. No other parents would buy a used baby like that, especially one with a name like Douglas Francis.

At some point in the annual telling of the story, Mom had to jump in and spare Dad the obvious pain of talking any more about the time he got rooked on a bad baby deal. Mom always told nice things about the birthday boy. But this was crazy for two reasons: one, it was all obviously made up, and two, the birthday boy didn’t care. He never seemed to listen to the story, preferring instead to stay hunched close over his plate to eat, hand and mouth working together like the piston and wheels of a locomotive.

“He was a beautiful baby. And healthy too. The nurses said he was the loudest burper on the ward,” she said. And the beautiful baby looked up and offered a loud belch in support of this claim. He blew it across the table at me, enveloping me in the stale smell of partially digested pork and onions. I made a face and fanned my hand wildly to ward off the death cloud. “Maaaa!” I cried, adding extra vowels to signify my righteous disgust. “He’s blowing stinky burps!” But this caused my mother to make up even more lies.

“You have no idea how lucky you are to have such an excellent big brother!” she cried. Then she told a story about how, before they went shopping for me at the hospital, she and Dad ordered a crib from Jordan Marsh over in Bedford. When the deliverymen came to set it up, my brother, who was almost 3 years old, screamed and cried, inconsolable because the little brother he’d been hoping for had not come with the crib. “Where my Brubby? I want my Brubby!” he howled. Allegedly.

When I finally did come home, Big Brubby—or BB, as he sometimes referred to himself--followed me everywhere, watching me as a baby and toddler with all the undiluted affection and awkward care of a St. Bernard. If I cried, he was often the first one into the room to soothe me. He even went so far as to check my diaper himself. “He would stick his finger in and yell out, ‘Mom! The Kid is wet! Mom! The Kid is brown!’ He loved you that much,” she claimed.

I looked at my brother, and tried to reconcile the angelic guardian of my mother’s fantasy with the reality that sat across from me, and just knew they couldn’t be the same person. When my parents left the table to go to the bathroom or something, BB often reached across and took food right off my plate. I was willing to indulge this behavior if we were having pot roast or tuna casserole, but if it was chicken and dumplings or spaghetti and meatballs, I had to scream Mom’s name with about 25 extra vowels or else be ready to fight to the death for my supper. Dessert? I had to eat that in the kitchen, or standing up, ready to run.

I had to admit, at least Dad got some heft for his money. All the grown-ups referred to my brother as husky, but I knew fat when I saw it and it was staring at me right across the dinner table, shoveling in the grub like it was being outlawed tomorrow. I was never happy about my brother’s size. It wasn’t just that he was fat—although he weighed a whole other me—it was that he was tall, too, and getting taller all the time. Mom was forever letting out the cuffs of his pantlegs and about once a month we had to drive over to the Antioch Shoe Outlet to get another pair of shoes or sneakers for him. Plus BB was strong. He had inherited our father’s long gorilla arms—at 10 years old, his were just as hairy as Dad’s and almost as strong.

This put me at a severe disadvantage when we got to arguing, because after a few heated words over ownership of a Hot Wheels car, or for control of the Lincoln Logs, my brother would just abandon diplomacy and punch me—an act he euphemistically referred to as “thumping,” as if he were a gentle bunny rabbit giving me a playful nudge. In fact, BB put his weight into it. And if he thumped me hard enough that I started to cry or bleed or both, he would panic and hide the evidence.

My parents were big ones for saving containers of every stripe. In the garage, they still had giant cardboard cartons saved from the move out of the apartment and into the house. My Dad also bought plastic garbage cans whenever they were on sale—they made great storage bins for the scraps of pipe and lumber he was forever bringing home from job sites. In the house, my mother had three wicker hampers, each bigger than an oil drum. She kept one in the living room for clothes that needed ironing, one in her and Dad’s bedroom as a laundry hamper, and one in our room for toys. We also had four long wooden toyboxes that Dad had made—using scrap lumber he brought home. They slid under the bottom bunk.

Depending on our location when the thumping occurred and how loudly I started crying, BB would sometimes dump me head-first into a musty wardrobe box, which was too high for me to escape from unaided. Or he’d throw me into the garbage can with the least amount of pipe or lumber in it, then put the lid on it and a cinderblock on top of that. It was only by poking the lid repeatedly with a length of copper pipe that I was able to lift the lid a little bit on the side and stick the pipe through and so get enough oxygen to survive until rescued.

Once, when Mom was out hanging clothes, BB thumped me so hard my lip swelled up like a hornpout’s and long stringy ropes of blood began falling out the sides. Before I could spit some evidence on the floor and scream my guts out, he put me in the wicker ironing basket, closed the thatched lid and ingeniously locked it with a bent wire hanger. As always, he hissed that he would be back to let me out once I stopped crying and promised not to tell. By then, this had happened enough that I didn’t panic—not like the time he emptied a toybox, put me in, and rolled me under the bed. I had never been in the ironing basket before and thought it was kind of nice. I wiped my mouth on one of my mother’s white blouses, then made a little nest out of the linens in there and fell asleep. Eventually my mom got to wondering where I was, and when she couldn't find me, my brother was too scared to tell her what he had done, so a house-to-house search of the neighborhood ensued. When he thought the coast was clear, BB returned to let me out, but Mom caught him.

The problem was, my brother usually just got shouted at—if Dad was home he might get a rap in the mouth. But mostly BB got sent to the bedroom we shared, and that wasn’t like punishment. I mean, all our toys were there and since I couldn’t go in until he was paroled, it was kind of like punishment for me, too. Eventually I discovered that, though BB was bigger, I could dominate him—or at least annoy him--with my mouth, which was way more satisfying than watching him get sent to our room.

When I was eight, I found a book in my parents’ closet that explained where babies came from and how they got there in the first place. I didn't understand all of it, but I gained enough new knowledge to drive BB crazy. I informed my brother that, in fact, I was our parents' first child, but that our mother and father loved me so much, they held me back. Then they had BB "first" so they could see what went wrong with a kid, figure out how to fix those mistakes and get it all perfect with me, as they so obviously had. I usually had to start running as I said the last part, because the only way BB could soothe his rage and frustration was to lay hands on me.

Once, when I was too slow, he caught me by both arms, lifted me off the ground and pulled my arms in opposite directions. Something in my chest popped like a giant knuckle. It was so loud my mom heard it in the next room where she was ironing. It even startled BB, who dropped me to the floor. I landed flat on my stomach, knocking the wind out of myself and that was how Mom found us--me gasping for air at the foot of my brother, who was already crying, “I didn’t mean to break his ribs! I didn’t mean it!” But even blacking out and half-dying, I knew he was a big fat liar.

By the time we got to the hospital, I had secretly come back from death, having caught my breath on the drive into Manchester. My chest felt sore, but not too painful. I was lying across almost the entire back seat of the car, a pillow under my head and a blanket wrapped around me. I felt as comfortable and cozy as I had been that day I was trapped in the ironing basket. BB was scrunched way over in the corner. I know because I kept him there by pushing both feet up hard against the side of his butt.

“Are you still alive?” he kept asking, his voice sounding high and warbly. I ignored him a couple of times, but then Mom would get worried and speak up from the front. “Is he breathing? Are his eyes closed? Are his lips blue?” Then I would have to answer—weakly, “I can breathe--” I waited a moment, then sighed hugely. “—just a little.” BB stared at me, chewing the nails on his first two fingers. He was always eating something.

At the hospital, they took X-rays, which was scary because I had to go in a dark room all by myself. I was sniffling a little when they brought me back to the exam room where Mom and BB waited. My brother was gazing at me with eyes I’d never seen before. He came over and—very gently—patted me on the shoulder. “Are you okay, kid?” he asked. Then Mom squeezed my hand, and changed the subject. “Good God, last time I was in a room in this hospital was when you were born. The nurses wheeled you in on a rolling crib from the nursery. You had the biggest head of red hair.” She ruffled it now. “And you still do.”

“Was I born here too?” BB asked, looking around the room with new interest. Mom nodded, giving my brother a serious look. “The doctors thought you would be stillborn.”

“What’s that?” he asked.

“It means born dead,” I said wistfully, remembering the word from the book I found in my parents’ room.

“You were fine, of course, but they didn’t know at first,” Mom said. “The bastards gassed me, knocked me out before I could hold you. I was bullshit mad when I woke up. Later, Grandma and Papa made a special trip up to take a look at you. They only had one other grandson, your cousin Buzzy, but since he was Aunt Barbara’s child, you would be the first one to carry on the family name,” she told my brother.

“Did they come to see me too?” I asked, feeling that Mom’s attention had wandered. She turned back to me. “Not you, dear. You were old news by then.” Then her expression hardened and she looked at BB. “Do you know, when Grandma got a hold of you, she looked you over, then handed you back and said to your father. ‘Well, at least we know he’s yours.’ Then she gave me a look and walked out. Five minutes later, she and Papa were back in the truck. Can you imagine?”

I looked over at BB, who gave me back the look we shared when we had no idea what Mom was talking about. It didn’t matter anyway, because a second later the doctor came in and said the X-rays showed nothing broken, which disappointed me a little, after all the trouble I’d been to. Then the doctor pushed his cold hands all around on my chest for a long time and listened to my insides with an even colder stethoscope. Eventually, he announced that I had a pulled muscle. He told Mom to give me a baby aspirin and a day of rest, but I knew an injury this severe would take at least a week on the couch to heal up.

I let a nurse put me in a wheelchair. When they rolled me out to the front desk, Mom remembered to be mad at BB again, especially when the clerk handed Mom the bill. Dad had lousy insurance back then. Mom had to pay for the two X-rays. “Seventy-five dollars? Each?” she cried, inviting the sympathetic clerk to share her astonishment as she fished in her purse for the checkbook.

For a moment, Mom’s eyes fell on BB, still hunched attentively over my wheelchair. She pointed at him then said to the clerk. “Can I still return this one?”

It still needs work--it's only a first draft. But I'm already committed to this thing like an insane person to an asylum, so I guess that's something.

Hope that was worth waiting six weeks for. Maybe I'll post another taste one of these days.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


In Which We Spin The Wheel...

And so, full circle, back once again at the Magazine Mansion.

I'm sorry if I kept any of you waiting or worrying. I've had an eventful six weeks. Oh, my first month or so in New Hampshire was slow enough, alternating between writing and continuing to clean out my parents' (now my Big Brother's) house and throwing out as much as I could when BB wasn't looking. I'm satisfied with my progress on both fronts—I averaged 10,000 words a week on my writing and smuggled six truckloads of useless crap out of the house and into the local landfill.

Then I left to go retrieve Thomas and bring him back to my home state for a week of camping and hiking, and that mostly in the rain. But he enjoyed it and I may tell more about our adventures, but for now I'm just trying to get back into the swing of things.

If you were to illustrate my working life (such as it is) and the way I prioritize it (such as I do) you'd find it would resemble the mutant offspring of a pie-chart and a roulette wheel, with about 50 percent of it devoted to finding freelance and 40 percent devoted to my own personal writing projects. And every day, Fate spins the wheel. For most of the past month and change, the wheel has been stopping in the 40-percent zone, and when I got back home last week, I knew the wheel would turn round and I'd find myself shifting away again toward the generating-freelance spots.

And then I got a phone call that made everything spin wildly, and when the wheel came to rest, it was on the remaining 10 percent that you thought I wasn't going to mention. Though it represents the smallest slice in the weird wheel, it's an area I always leave open in my life, an area that allows me to cram in all my dream opportunities that I used to fantasize about. When I was younger and the wheel was in constant motion, dream opportunities occupied, naturally, the biggest area of the wheel.

But as you get older, and your sense of reality hardens to a thick shell, you understand that most of these things are never going to happen. Most people I know just write these dreams off, chalk them up to childish whim and forget about them. I give them the last sliver of the weird wheel of my life.

Some of these opportunities include:

--An international job of some kind (hey, I never said all these dream scenarios were specific)

--A chance to volunteer for any experiment involving time travel (pretty much given up on that one. I mean, if time travel was ever going to be discovered in my lifetime and I actually got to go, I know I'd leave/will leave/will have left myself a letter or sticky note--just a few words of encouragement, and possibly a lottery number or two, as proof that I made it--and I've never found such a note)

--A shot at running my own newspaper or magazine (I think my last few months at the Really Big Magazine cured me of that one)

--The opportunity to write a script (for comics or a movie, doesn't really matter)

The list goes on, into ever weirder and more embarrassing territory, but you take my point, I think. Keeping the list, allowing it 10 percent of the wheel doesn't mean I think any of them are ever going to happen. In fact, I allow that these would be possible for me only through blind luck, or circumstances for which the phrases "once in a lifetime" and "all the planets in alignment" were created.

The phone call was blind luck, pure and simple. A person I met exactly once, about 5 months ago, passed my resume to the Mystery Caller. This Mystery Caller also happens to work with a friend of a friend of a former colleague of mine who by sheer coincidence also mentioned my name in passing. So the Mystery Caller took a hint and phoned me, 24 hours after I returned from New Hampshire. We talked, and 10 minutes later, I was packing a bag and driving across the country (again) to meet with the Mystery Caller, I was that intrigued with the opportunity he wanted to discuss.

Which, if you haven't guessed by now, is an opportunity I can't tell you about yet. I hate when people do that to me, so I hope you believe me when I tell you how sorry I am I can't reveal more yet.

(I'll make it up to you by posting--in the next day or so--a few of the 20,000 words I wrote last month. Fair enough?)

I can tell you this is something I've always wanted to do, at a place I've known and admired for most of my life. When I told Her Lovely Self I was getting back in the car and driving off into the unknown, I expected her to try and talk me out of it--it really is a long shot. But she just smiled.

"I know you too well," she said. "You'll go and find out more because it's a long shot. And I think you should. Don't you?"

"I guess so," I said, stuffing a handful of socks and underwear into a satchel and throwing toiletries into a shaving kit, and trying to do about four other things at once. "It's one of those things I always leave a possibility open for. You know, in my weird roulette wheel, the 10-percent part, where it's--"

"Once in a lifetime, all the planets in alignment," she said, nodding. She's read this post before. "And how many planets would you say are in alignment right now?"

I stopped then, underwear in one hand, a toothbrush in the other. "Honestly, maybe four or five," I said. "There's a chance--a small one, but still. There's a chance this might happen."

I should know more soon. But meanwhile, you should know that I'm alive and well and bouncing off the walls. If this thing happens, it'll probably happen in the next 48 hours, and after that, the weird wheel is likely to spin off its axle and leave me wondering what the hell I'm supposed to do next.


For the first time in a long time, something massive and celestial is in the works. I can see them in the twilight, Mercury, Venus, Mars, all of them, spinning slowly into place.

Am I hopeful? Am I excited?

You bet Uranus.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

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