Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy Halloween!!

At first, Ben mistook the puppy for a bundle of wet rags. Then he noticed the tail swish as he slid the glass door open. Half his porch had flooded in last night's rains and water was still dripping from the porch of the unit directly above his. A dark pool of water sat in the curve of the old stain on the concrete. The sleek black puppy was curled just above the waterline. Its tail moved faster until it thumped into the water.

The splash must have startled it, because both heads came up. Ben stopped. Two puppies? Some jerk must have dumped them last night at the vet office in the shopping center just next to the apartments. There was a narrow zone of hip-high weeds between them, vestiges of a property dispute that went unnoticed in this ragged neighborhood north of Houston. At least it was puppies and not a giant snake.

At that point, it stood to shake itself and Ben realized there were two heads, but only one dog. They didn't seem to notice, both sets of large chocolate puppy eyes fastened on Ben. He turned around, went down the hall to his bathroom, and grabbed one of Jester's towels. He frowned. Sorry, boy. Miss you.

The puppy was already exploring the edge of the dining room carpet when Ben returned. It let him wrap the towel around its body and didn't seem to mind him rubbing each neck. No collar on either. Both mouths tugged at the edges of the towel. Once it was dry, Ben set him down. "Heckyl, Jeckyl let me get you something to eat." The names just came out.

There wasn't any puppy food, but there were several cans of the lamb and rice mush Ben had hand-fed to Jester after the cancer revealed itself. Ben had to crush his mouth tight to open the can and scoop it into the ceramic "J" bowl on the counter. He filled the matching water bowl and set both down in the kitchen.

Heckyl and Jeckyl ate and drank, dragging the bowls out so that they could edge around them and eat and drink in tandem. Ben leaned against the counter. "Shouldn't have named y'all. It's going to keep raining, though. Not a night for collarless dogs." Because of the vet or because of tenant complaints, the apartment had a zero tolerance policy for unleashed or unidentifiable pets. They spread rumors of coyotes and let the maintenance personal carry guns on property.

Ben got another set of dog towels and the pet gate that he'd used to confine Jester to the back bedroom. He set the gate up at the entrance to the hall, piled the towels in heap by the window and clicked his fingers for the pup. He--Ben decided on a singular pronoun for a singular dog--waddled over and pulled the towels over to the gate.

It was at this point Ben understood the gate might have been a bad idea. Heckyl and Jeckyl sat like a sphinx on the towels, their eyes picking up every green phosphor highlight in the watery morning light. Shadows curled on the wall leading to the bedrooms and the one bathroom and the hallway felt darker than it should be. The back bedroom window occluded by a shadow outside and, for the first time, Ben heard a low growl roll from the dog.

When he glanced down, he saw the growl was directed at Jeckyl, who was sniffing a rawhide bone he'd found under the table. Heckyl growled again and dropped his jaw over one end of the rawhide. Jeckyl barked and grabbed the other. Flames slid down the bone like saliva. Ben was reminded of the chemical fire they'd started in the shower at Sam Houston, trying to clean the dorm room in a hurry before someone's parents visited. He stepped forward, but the two of them seemed content to gnaw the flaming bone.

For the first time, Ben felt the tilt of the land toward the creek, despite being built up for the complex decades ago. Dark grass and a wet sky seemed to run toward the water and the lean of the land pulled at Ben. Heckyl and Jeckyl stopped chewing, dropped the bone, and walked over to nuzzle at Ben. He petted both heads, rubbed ears, and kept his eye on the bedroom window.

"Open your heart like a saloon door and something looking for trouble will eventually push in." Ben shook his head. That had been advice for his sister; bad advice, from a notoriously conservative grandfather, but it looked like Ben might have let it in. He looked down at Heckyl and Jeckyl. "Jester would have been game for a change. Welcome to your new home."

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

October Nights

This close to the Gulf Coast, October nights are however the long breath of the Gulf and the dramatic cold sighs of the arctic whisper to each other. Tonight is mild, the air soft against you when it moves. It is strong enough to carry the clouds quickly overhead and to shape the spray paint penumbra over the eggs my brother is painting into the ghosts that he will say laid the eggs on Halloween night.

It is full dark, after nine, and his front lights are dead, so we step directly into the vestibule of the night when we leave the house with planks of plastic eggs and cans of fluorescent and glow-in-the-dark paint. This used to be my grandparents' house; it no longer is. These empty gravel beds and the lack of a sweetgum tree seem to open up under the moonlight. There is enough light from occluded porches up and down the street and from the moon that we can walk across the front lawn quickly. It is dark enough that we do.

After being secured to the planks with hot glue and painted green, yellow, and glow-in-the-dark, the eggs glow a fungus green and the strands of glue give the impression of their just having been laid, perhaps by some spectral insect ticking its thorax in the darkness.

I used to walk this street without fear in the dark, with a sense of place that made the unknown fall back before me...what could be unknown on this street that I had been learning since before I started school? Tonight is mild, the night rests easy against me; yet, it doesn't let me forget that I have changed, that I have learned other streets and other nights. My brother walks me back to my parents' house when the eggs are done.

The same houses now full of different spirits channel us home.

Friday, October 25, 2013

This morning I went to the arboretum; yesterday was a day of clumsy hawks and brief smears of comets and today I wanted to see whether blooms tight a day or so ago would be open. This is what I saw and how I came to see it.

I wore a long-sleeve shirt and shorts. The breeze chilled my hands and legs and face until I could only see, my breath was quiet and my skin numb, my nose muffled until only the sharpest ginger could pinch it awake. First of all, I saw the squirrel sitting in the bird feeder and the young blue jays swooping to the corners, darting in to snatch food, and swooping out again. The squirrel stretched along one side so that the jays could have the open length of the feeder, the one built like a framed doll barn, to pop in and out. They watched me take a few pictures, black eyes round in grey feathers, leaping away as I lowered or raised the camera.

I followed a trail over a small pond and along the upper banks of Cypress Creek, pressing my camera once to my throat as if I was going to swear to it or speak through it. Continuing around the edge of the arboretum I came to the ginger bushes, warm as the holidays in the back of my throat and hot against my chill sense of smell. Moving inward, I found the beauty berries, small clumps of purple as if someone had carved giant raspberries out of purple crayons and stuck them on bare limbs. I want to pluck the branches and scrawl purple on the benches until the rain washes it into the small ponds and the water lies lilac under the winter sky.

Thinking purple thoughts, I go back to the formal gardens and the sprays of purple and white spotted toad lilies. We had one of these as a house plant when first we moved into the house and these profusion a are like seeing the intervening years gathered in a heap, with all the good memories stretching to the sun.

Somehow, the cold has brought me not only further into my skin but also into the desire I had as a child to see all the tiny flowers, to find the way the weeds celebrated beside ditches or in the otherwise well-kept grass. There is no wild purple bindweed here. Instead, I find things I can't name: flowers blooming just above the ground or soft, dry clusters on tall, pale stalks just inside the butterfly meadow.

I remember gathering leaves for a seventh grade science project with Holly and want to take some of these back to Mrs. Kyle...see what I am still finding?

On the cobblestones in the formal garden I find a dead bee. Not far away the wind chimes are ringing with the wind and vibrating with cars passing on Aldine Westfield along the front of the arboretum. The chords should be a slow march for the bee, like the rest of them, drifting their heaviness from flower to flower, harvesting even those flowers that would barely fit a bumble bee. I imagine that it is the rose mallow ringing for the bees, those great hanging crinolines and bowers so pale pink I think they are white at first. Such heavy petals should ring in wind.

It is only time to leave when the sun begins to wake up my skin and I realize I've taken the last picture of the moon in the cold morning frame of pine branches.

Off the Shelf

It used to come from the shelves, this book enchantment. Pictures gleaming or protected beneath translucent sepia jackets and soft feather pages whispering against my thumb, trailheads marked by a few paragraphs on the back. Perhaps they would come from the shelves of friends, piled against my wrist as I left, back when you hung out deep in the heart of your friends' houses, when living rooms were for the formalities of your relatives.

I still read as if it was just another autonomic response. More often, the enchantment comes from books that are suggested to me--books I would never have pulled off the shelves on my own. I had dismissed Harry Potter when it first came out; it is easy to assume you've read enough to not have the capacity for one more Book X...high fantasy, under 18 protagonist, whatever. So I borrow someone else's enthusiasm and realize it makes you happy, too.

That happened once again this weekend when I read Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. A passing mention in a writer's group caused me to download the novel. Once I started, I sank into the words so deeply that my husband opening a door made me jump. I had to curl up in a back bedroom, shut the door, and read until it was done. Like the best books, the ending seemed to leave the created world on the edge of infinity instead of shutting the narrative down.

Later, I found that ideas such as the end of scarcity and the use of reputation for currency would shift the way I perceived my own media consumption; these ideas are still percolating.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Queen of Air and Wireless

The rains of Friday are still with us, in the puddles and damp sand in the low spots along the trails in the arboretum. Tree roots are soaked smooth so that they lie like dinosaur bones stalking the wind as it shivers the leaves in the shade. Along one low bridge over a resurrected swamp, a mother is coaxing her baby to roll forward and smile for the camera.

I'd come out to the arboretum because I realized last night while listening to critiques of others' stories that the story I was working on had logical problems that could best be solved by determining how my main character ended up on his current path. Now, seeing the baby, I find myself wondering whether she will ever visit a bookstore. Shade and heat settle on my skin and last night's discussion reminds me that I have, have had since high school, unfashionable taste in literature. Where will stories find readers in the future? Where will the readers be?

Friday, October 18, 2013

Light the Lights

I am a fan of epistolary novels and have a weakness for reading collections of correspondence, pulling bits of awareness from them of others' lives. Blog collections, too--at least the funny ones--find themselves on my shelves. I could imagine e-mail collections, although I've never seen one.

Then, recently, I tried to write a letter. A card, really, the equivalent of two postcards, long sides together. I wrote a few sentences and started making big loopy letters, making the text larger, hurrying toward the close, my signature, and doodles of the two dogs to take up space. Organizing a letter, writing a few paragraphs about the day, the dogs, the weather and it's ramifications seemed unnatural; I could no longer easily think in the rhythms of letters, only in the brevity of simple, visible posts on my own semi-private wall on the Internet.

There is in these posts the awareness of the baleful twins of Judgment and Disregard, a sometimes desperate feeling of being briefly onstage and trying to capture an audience rather than speak to a friend. The art of correspondence has been dulled by the constant showmanship of a child or the political hectoring of placard-waving marcher.

Does it matter? I am no less living my life, whether I am posting pictures of the arboretum and sharing sarcastic posts or sending paragraphs on the birds at the bird feeder or the frustrations of early drafts individually. In one, however, I feel as if I'm lifting the front curtain for a flashbulb and in the other as if I'm sharing a conversation. Conversations can be cheap, shallow, and scripted. I'm not arguing for the perfection of one form over another, just that I feel as if brevity doesn't do me many favors. I meander. I build worlds out of that time. Out of the things I find on the slow perusal of other lives.

But hey, it's the twenty-first century. Light the lights.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Mall Food

Last night I never did get around to writing, thanks to a wicked panic attack caused by my esophagus...which is still out to get me for some reason. I'm having my revenge by eating mall food--fried rice & some kind of blackened, glazed chicken--for lunch. Take that, homicidal esophagus!

In addition to an iffy lunch, I spent the morning in the arboretum. It was just chilly enough for the shade to be sharp against my skin. There were two points that let me stand as a still point in the morning, beneath a sycamore tree whose leaves are burning slowly in the fall and in front of the bird feeder, the one that looks like a framed and roofed doll cabin. Sycamores are one of my favorite trees. It is their bark which I adore, white and silver in the spring, then tan, moss, grey, and wheat later in the season. A book of line drawings and ink washes could be illustrated in those colors and the drawings would be as expressive as the reader's dreams staining the text.

Bird feeders are different. Standing nearby, still as I can be with a camera balanced in my hands, I am trying to make myself invisible to the eyes of a dozen wary birds. In this case, an adult cardinal, adult blue jay, juvenile blue jays, chickadees, and the ubiquitous anonymous brown birds. What better metaphor for the wariness of a writer trying to remain unseen by the inner editors, the imagined embarrassments, the characters themselves while recording them than an amateur photographer watching young blue jays bounce in circles on the edge of the feeder roof, waiting for that one moment when the sun catches the nascent blue in the grey feathers? My camera isn't quite up to certain colors and I think most of my images are washed out, but the best part was just standing there as one or two birds swooped by or tried to find a way in past the other birds, balancing and bouncing as if they were tenuously present on their feet.

As this day moves through me, I hope those are the images that catch. The drive and the stress can disappear out the round blue of the window at the edge of the food court.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


Today I am stuck on the silence side of language and silence. Langauge & Silence is the book that I'm half reading, half griping over instead of working through my stack of October reading (or writing). While this isn't a book to validate spending time on a genre novel (it is a book to induce guilt over being monolingual), it isn't the only brick in Wall o' Writer's Block...the vast majority of those are high-pitched, whiny barks courtesy of a fratchetty Merlin. The architecture of thought is there, only to be repeatedly dynamited by Merlin reminding me he is bored, unappreciated, and hungry.

Varda, on the other hand, is practicing her black & white starlet poses on the couch. She's taken to draping her neck over the arm or over the back of the couch. Quietly.

I have been avoiding this draft until the doubts have fully infested my headspace. So, instead of reminding myself how much I enjoy reading a good story, I'm reminding myself of why writing is potentially unethical, reinforcing the glare without focusing the light, as it were. I am seeking out excuses. I am an expert at this. reading this evening. Writing instead.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Stray Books

Our Muppet dog is on antibiotics this week, which means both dogs get food twice a day, a mix of wet and dry, because Muppet dog needs to be encouraged to eat in case the pill upsets his stomach and because I always fail my escape-feeling-guilty saving throw versus the otter daughter's reproachful expressions. The otter daughter only gets pumpkin purée mixed with her food, as she is on a diet.

The diet came about because we almost never walk in this neighborhood of nameless neighbors, stray dogs, and reckless cars. We sit on the couch together; I read, the otter daughter slides along the surface of the blankets, twists belly-up, and snoozes. She dreams of running and kicks my hip. I dream of walks I used to take and rub her tummy until the kicking stops. All of this folderol requires a certain kind of book, reminiscent or adventurous, slim, easy to move from the page to your thoughts and back again. Poetry works well.

Last week, the perfect book came unexpectedly into my hands while I was visiting the library. Am I the only who checks out books because I feel guilty for glancing at them, prejudging them, and putting them back on the shelf? This is what I did with Kathi Appelt's My Father's Summers. In this book, Ms. Appelt limns her memories of her childhood in Houston before and after her parent's divorce in brief paragraph poem chapters. These chapters are illustrated by family photos and the book feels like a fascinating photo album you might have found tucked away in someone's closet. A behind-the-scenes extra for the sunny family picture that made the official family album. None of which I knew when I pulled it off metal shelf, glanced at the blurb, thought "depressing!" In that judgy mental singsong, and shoved it back on the shelf.

I moved on. But...Houston! Memoir of a contemporary in a city you've found fascinating ever since your mother declared it was horrible and that she hated it and then sent you to college there! And how many people end up down on the floor, skimming that lower shelf? I glanced back and felt the first hopeful wag of its imaginary tail. It was coming home with me and it would be the first thing I read, curled up on the couch with the otter daughter wedged against my hip. Then, the specificity and brevity of each chapter, the whisking from scene to scene, began to build a momentum that slipped me from page to page, each vignette slipping like a film across the surface of my own memories.

It's not that we shared childhood experiences per se, but the author's voice encouraged a dialogue of memory--it amazes me how memoirists manage the impression of remembering in flashes of narrative that are organized but feel like thought, drained of the chaos but retaining its character.

Just writing this post I can feel the difficulty of that.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Deenie and Delaine, or An Unexpected Cardinal

Ahead of this week's cool front, flocks of hummingbirds have been darting around the arboretum. I have been chasing a good photo of them, practicing a patient, aimless lurk beside the bushes they seem to favor. I now have a collection of photos of invisible hummingbird wakes, dark hummingbird shapes giving me the cold shoulder, and blurry commotions near Turks' caps and sage blossoms--and memories of cartoon sound effects as they zipped by my shoulders.

It was to see if any hummingbirds lingered after this first, minor cool front that I was once again lurking by the sage bushes yesterday. I slipped around a curve in the path to find a crimson cardinal hanging on to a thin stem of sage, just a few inches above the mulch. It saw me, dove upward through the lilac and white sage flowers, and was gone. The colors...that velvet red, the delicate purple tint, and the spotlight-bright white...were a perfect clash that threw each into relief, a flash of upcoming holidays--joy as lightning across your memory.

And I, immediately trying to bleed the awe from my experience, decided to make fun of it, to turn it into the symbol for a chick lit fable. Quilts, Christmas, and Delaine on her porch thinking about her grandmother Deenie...maybe a brief snapshot in honor of the real photo that I missed.

Deenie and Delaine, however, moved right into my brain and have decided to stay and chat. They think Nano sounds interesting...a novel in a month? Won't that be fun! Let me tell you...

Now it looks like my November novel draft will be less bees and lizards and Sunflower Queens and more grandmothers and legacies. Maybe it's a good time for that. I'll save the bees for next summer.