Ever since I badly lost the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest, actually even before that, I've been restructuring my manuscript. I've cut a ton, moved the puzzle pieces around like crazy. Before entering the contest, I got several nice, personalized rejections from some kind NY agents. They varied radically in their ideas of why they believed The Goodness of Meredith Beam wouldn't sell. One well-known agent said that my story was "too internal". A few others claimed that they couldn't engage with my protagonist, Meredith. All the advice seemed to boil down to the fact that no one could bring themselves to care all that much about my girl, M.
And here's where I'm hoping my voracious reading habit will come in handy. Not that I'm comparing myself to published authors, successful or otherwise (and certainly not to any who ever made it on Oprah), but I've noticed, in my bookish travels, that one technique writers sometimes use that makes me love and want to protect a character from certain tragedy, is showing that character as a child.
Or perhaps this is less a technique and more a natural element of the story. But, I? I'm admitting it's a technique. I don't quite understand the deficiency in my writing that causes the blase apathy toward Meredith but I'm determined to make people love her, dammit.
I've gone through the chapters, attempted to add more feeling, more yearning. And I've inserted, at the beginning of each section, a few pages about Meredith as a girl (a high schooler, to be precise). Because when, in life, is there more yearning than those teen years?
It's a little long, but I'm including my new first few manuscript pages in this post. If you're so inclined to read it, I'd love critiques.
Our luggage sits, unpacked, just inside the front door, sand collected along the canvas piping of the suitcases and duffel bags. Looking at them, from my spot on a carved wooden bench inside the foyer, I swear I can smell trout and sturgeon, gull excrement and the lemon verbena candle my mother likes to burn in the Suttons Bay cottage we rent every summer.
I pick at the pink polish flaking from my toenails, my flip-flops splayed on the floor beneath me. I don’t want to proceed further into the house. My mother is in the kitchen, where she immediately drifted to sort through mail and play the messages on our answering machine, where my father trailed her, hoping to find a snack of hummus and Ritz crackers.
A few moments after their departure toward the back of the house, a woman’s voice, that was vaguely familiar and also out of place in our mock tudor house nestled in Lansing, Michigan, brayed down the hallway. The voice, in its first message, made me think of curlicues and balloons doodled in margins of a notebook, asked my father to please call her when he had a chance.
As the amplified clicks of her hang-ups progressed, though, her tone descended into anger. And then frenzy.
The first time she called him a mother-fucking coward, my mother could be heard sighing and saying, “Oh, Joe. How could you?”
Shortly thereafter, my father scurried through the living room and into his den where he slammed the door. I saw him, through the panes of leaded glass as he sunk into his leather loveseat, head in his hands.
The inside of the house is still and hot after being closed for a week. Sweat trickles down the back of my neck and into the collar of my shirt. My skin still reeks of the Hawaiian Tropic that Carolyn and I slathered over arms and legs and chests for our seven days at the beach.
My mother has turned up the answering machine’s volume. “You fucked me just last week, Joe. Just last week and now you’re off with your wife and kids pretending to be the family man. I know you’re checking messages, Joe. Call me. Fucking call me.”
It is 1988 and I know who she is, though I’d only met her once, at a non-partisan dinner given for Michigan’s governor-elect. She had boufy, blond-streaked hair and bright, high cheeks. The night my father introduced her to us as a lobbyist for Amoco she wore purple, plastic earrings and a blazer with sleeves rolled up to her elbows. I’d sensed her studying Carolyn and I as we picked from the buffet and did our best to chat with our father’s congressional cohorts.
At one point we’d ended up in the bathroom together, she dotting on lip gloss as I washed my hands. “Love your top,” she’d commented through flattened, sticky lips.
“Thanks,” I said, ripping off a paper towel. The truth was, I admired her look too. She was the epitome of eighties swank. The exact opposite of my mother in her canvas Keds and conversative, gold-rimmed glasses. “I just got it at Maurices.”
Then the hand-dryer whooshed to life and I left, not sure how, exactly, she fit into my father’s life, but sensing that her place was as more than a walk-on.
“Come on, you pussy. I know you don’t go more than six hours without checking your messages. Call me back.” Her scream then echoed through the house and I slinked out to the porch with Carolyn, to huddle under the umbrella of her indignation. She heard it all too, I was sure, and her acerbity would protect me, would keep me from sinking in the downpour of my own sadness and guilt.
The truth was, my mother would explain later, that our father hadn’t checked the machine at all that week. He was trying to forget about the-bitch-named-Sue (Carolyn, a Johnny Cash lover’s, pet name for our father’s mistress) and had embarked on the trip, one we took every summer, actually hoping, that year, to start fresh with our family.
Still, news of his betrayal batters us like whitecaps crashing across a breakwater, sweeping everything out into the cold, blue lake. And I don’t know how we can forgive him.
Carolyn sits on the porch railing, kicking a post, her arms crossed over her chest. She squints out at the yard, sun browned and dry, and slowly shakes her head.
I plop onto the bench swing across from her, the chains creaking as I push off with my toe again and again. A large bubble forms in the center of me and rises up into my stomach, my throat, my sinuses until my scalp prickles and the bubble overtakes everything. It is malleable, yet strong and filled with fear. If it pops, and I am able to utter one word, it will be a meek, “Help.”
Carolyn finally murmurs, “That bastard. Our father is a first class, number one bastard. Did you know that, Mer?”
I can only push myself back and forth.
She continues, “I think I’ve always known. Deep down.”
I don’t want to believe her. Yeah, he messed up royally. But he’s our dad. Daddy. The one who, when we were small, galloped around the yard with one of us on his back, whinnying, then stamping the ground with his toe.
“Now be a pig!” I would shriek, and he’d obligingly waddle around snorting.
Carolyn always requested the ostrich, which he did not know how to do, so he pranced with his neck stretched high, his arms looped beneath her knees.
He wasn’t often so present, so farm-animal-like, but it is this game I remember as I sway on the swing.
“Maybe he was… in love?” I try, testing my voice. Only, it doesn’t sound like mine, but snivelly and high.
“With someone other than mom? That’s no excuse! God!” she shook her head hard, as if to erase my suggestion.
A goldfinch yodels, flutters around in the birdbath that is mucky and only half-full.
I get up, drag the garden hose across the scratchy grass and into a flowerbed that is normally perfectly-maintained, but during our week-long absence has begun sprouting small weeds. I fill the birdbath. The water is cold, lurching around air bubbles in the hose, gasping like a living thing in my hands.
Suddenly I imagine the hose is a penis and I drop it. I wipe my hands on my shorts and leap to crank the spigot closed.
I have a boyfriend. Sort of. Our relationship is still new, still tentative. We met the previous spring at a multiple-school dance and have gone out seven times, to movies, for walks. The last two dates have concluded in make out sessions that end abruptly when he pulls away, inhales deeply and stares off into the middle distance.
And, though, in the moment I am taut and electric with desire for more, am the one who unbuttons my top and guides his hands around my body, now the thought of him, of what lives inside his pants, that he’s the same gender as my father, leaves me queasy.
“What are you doing?” Carolyn asks, her tone accusatory. She has rotated slightly on her perch, to better eye me standing in the middle of the yard, my hand to my stomach, a slight tilt forward of my body.
“Nothing,” I say, and turn. I walk to the sidewalk that runs in front of our house. I have no destination in mind, but suddenly do not want to be near Carolyn and all her bitterness. I have never been good with conflict. I have never been good with holding position and arguing my point, or even with existing in the same room, the same mental space as negativity. So I leave, down one block, then two and a dozen more.
I don’t know it now–I wonder if the psychic at the Sutton’s Bay arts festival saw it–but I am, in running away, setting a precedent that will forever haunt me.
We had a little discipline issue here yesterday.
With a three- and five-year-old in the house, nary a 4-hour span passes in which I'm not time-outting, hissing and white-knuckling my coffee cup to keep from pinching a chubby preschooler's thigh (a form of entertainment I haven't indulged in, by the way).
But yesterday. Yesterday was a doozie.
Just after I picked up Fruit Bat from Pre-K, it started--a titching sort of whine caused by my failure to pack a decent snack. An allergen-free granola bar and box of raisins, as it turned out, were wholly unsatisfactory. Awful, in fact. Crappy. The whine then progressed into a full-blown, screeching, writhing hell the resolution of which I couldn't, beyond driving in crazy circles around Mt. Rainier until he conked out, imagine.
It, sadly, ended with my carrying/dragging his 52-pound flailing body up the stairs and depositing him (and depositing is a euphemism) in his bedroom.
The list of infractions:
• Mouthing off like a pimply, haughty teenager in need of a rigorous, same-sex boarding school
• Making kicking gestures aimed directly between my eyes with his be-Crocked foot
• Whapping me in the face as I carried him to his room
• Emerging from his room before he was allowed
• Generally disrespecting and treating me like a skanky used Pull Up that hadn't yet been taken to the trash can
I feel I should mention that this type of shitty behavior is not Fruit Bat's usual M.O. He has his ups and downs of course, but, if anything, often wavers toward the gentler side.
I do think something is going on, emotionally, with him. Perhaps having to do with a few big advances he's making at the moment. But add to any psychological turmoil percolating up there in his head, a pinch of something like, oh, HUNGER (whisk until frothy and serve), and you've got a recipe for an explosive meltdown.
One thing that can assuage, or even, if you're on the ball enough, PREVENT such a catastrophe, is the glorious, magical protein. Nuts and eggs are out, due to a little thing called anaphylactic reaction. So I, a recovering Vegetarian and still fairly reluctant carnivore, operating in the survival mode that is parenting-young-children, have begun patronizing the meat counters of Greater Seattle, looking for as much natural, nitrite-free, antibiotic-free, hormone-free animal foodstuff that I can load into one shopping cart.
I'm always searching for something he hasn't tried yet, some new way marketers have devised to package beef, pork or chicken. Because A) Fruit Bat gets easily bored with the old stand-bys of nuggets and hot dogs and B) If there is no meat in him, he is not fit for any sort of interaction. And, hence, neither am I.
Meat sticks, jerky, deli slices, breaded, cubed, sliced, balled, frozen. I don't care. Give me steak in a sugar cone with chocolate sauce on top and, if it will placate Fruit Bat, keep his scanty social skills somewhat intact, I'll take it and even eat some myself.
I can't say I think buying meat from a grocery store with no real idea of how it came it be there is right. I can't say I feel great about eating cows and pigs and chickens.
I'm just too raked over to care much right now.
I ran into the grocery store today for three teensy items. As I was rounding the corner of the produce section, headed for checkout, a man who couldn’t entirely speak English was grinning at me.
He uttered something I couldn’t make out, so I turned.
“You look like Amazon!” he said. And continued to grin. As if he were seriously expecting a response.
Whenever I’m hit with a comment like this I don’t know what to do.
I just shrugged and said, “Nope.” As in, No, I am not, in actuality, a product of the Amazon Basin. I am just a corn-fed American girl.
I so wanted to come back with, “You look like Shit Eater.”
But I continued on my way.
All the while he maintained his stupid grin, like my long, long body was the most hilarious thing he could ever hope to witness.
Glad I could make his day.
Do not overpack. You will have to lug your suitcases full of sand toys, swimsuits and sunscreen to one agriculture inspection, one ticketing agent and then, finally, to baggage check. All while your three-year-old insists on being carried.
Do not assume your three-year-old will cooperate in any way, shape or form. Do not expect her to grasp the importance of proceeding cooperatively through Security.
Do not forget to empty your children’s Sigg water bottles before said Security. If you do forget and then plead with the TSA agent to let you dump the water, remember to bring your boarding pass and ID with you as you voluntarily surrender your position. Shoes would be good too. If you forget all those things, do not start crying while refiling yourself in the Security line barefoot and holding only those two, small water bottles. Tears will not soften the TSA agents.
When you stumble upon your second agriculture check, do not attempt to bring grape tomatoes on board the flight (reasoning that they are the only vegetable your five-year-old will eat). The tomatoes will be confiscated.
When you stumble upon your second agriculture check, do not attempt to bring carrots on board the flight (reasoning that they are the only vegetable your three-year-old will eat). The carrots may be confiscated.
Do not bother looking for signs to double check your gate. The power may very well be off, leaving the monitors black, and probably no one has thought to actually mark each individual gate.
Do not fry your body 3–4 days before decamping the islands. You will trail dead skin flakes throughout the entire airport.
Do not bicker with your husband. It makes everything worse.
Our last night in Hawaii. Such a melancholy lot we are.
With much leftover food in our condo we're overeating with abandon.
We had chocolate bars, marshmallows and graham crackers to eat up. We whipped it all into a traditional Hawaiian dessert called Humuhumu nukunuku Smoras.
Here I look like I'm beating imaginary tom-toms. Really, I'm just posing. As I'm wont to do.
Fruit Bat's special chocolate (nut, dairy and egg free) from Amanda's Own is over there on the right. (His sister swiped a large chunk from his slab.) Thank you Amanda's Own. I will be forever grateful that you exist.
Peace out, Maui. Thanks for the good time.
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