Monday, August 30, 2010

Not Gertrude

I wrote the first & third sections of "Not Gertrude" (below) around in June or so of 2009 when  I started planning the road trip I would go on that summer. The idea was to find a way to recycle sections of the GodAwful Novel (used in the 2nd section) that I wrote in grad school. I still like the contrast in the voices - one harsher, one more lyrical - but I'm not sure that the piece has enough oomph to stand alone as a short story, and I'm not sure there's a way to sustain that dynamic over a larger piece, the intersection of the Cynthia-as-narrator (but not me) and Maddy story.

The GodAwful Novel is, largely, about a woman driving across the country dealing with the death of her brother many years before. In my real life, last summer, on August 30th, 2009, while I was driving across the country, my brother Tommy passed away unexpectedly. Today, on the anniversary of his death, I'm posting this to say that he was before his death, and continues to be after it, a part of my life in ways I still don't entirely understand. Family, blood, genes bonded us in complicated ways despite radical differences between us, or so I believe.  I can tell you for certain that he liked Reese's peanut butter cups and hot dogs. 

W. S. Merwin wrote, "Your absence has gone through me / Like thread through a needle. / Everything I do is stitched with its color." 

Chapter One: Not Gertude

Shortly after I turn 40, I decide to go on a road trip, write one or two books, and figure out what to do about Maddy. My theory is that since my two college degrees haven’t taught me what I really need to know about writing or myself, I’ll be able to ferret out what’s next if I see a lot of road and a lot of old friends. Plus, I’m sick of walking dogs. And I’d like to leave my boyfriend for a time without actually having to break up.

It’s not that I mind the dogs. Their jowly smiles as they pant in the heat lends them an extra friendly summer veneer. After two years, off and on, I’m am officially Leader of the Pack. Amid the non-speaking, I am Alpha. Amid the roaring of humanity, not so much. Writers tend to be like that.

I don’t mind Mike, the boyfriend, much either. I just seem to have not all that much to say. The pheromone haze after years of celibacy has lifted enough for me to notice…eh. It’s one of those so-this-is-it? moments. Nothing wrong that I can pinpoint. But no violins.

So there are the dogs and the books to be written with Maddy (my fictional counterpart) and my new car. Before I leave on the trip, I must name the car. Sitting in the Drifting Nomad coffee shop with Andrew, my writer friend from a cubicle job in which I lasted three months, I entertain suggestions. The first name he tosses out is Milly (the woman he’s currently interested in), followed by Debbie (his mother’s name) and Lydia (his ex’s name). I wonder about him sometimes. He is ten years younger than I am, and a better writer, both of which annoy me, particularly given that he can be weirdly obtuse.

“I’m thinking the name of a diner waitress with blue eye shadow that calls you ‘hon’ but is still willing to pour hot coffee in your lap if you’re a pain in the ass’” I tell him.

“Gertrude. Gertie.”

“Too militant. Sounds like an overbearing German nanny.”

Our conversation is interrupted by the appearance of Brad, formerly a graphic designer and currently an artist since his Chinatown mugging head injury. Andrew tried to set us up about a year ago, which I open to, and Brad, apparently not, although he politely requested my phone number so he could not use it.

Andrew is saying hi to Brad. He looks older, more gray. I suppose the same goes for me, although I quietly pray I am not already stooped over like a sexless old man. I wish I had showered this morning. I can feel the grease shine on my face.

“You remember Cynthia," Andrew says.

“No.” Brad gives me an eyeless stare. I think, although I am not sure, that he is full of crap, but it’s hard to say on these things. He did have the head injury. He meets a lot of people. We did have quite a few beers that night. And it was a while ago. But mostly it’s: Wow, I’m SO not memorable. Stylin’. Another reason to leave DC.

An hour later, as I’m walking a bulldog named Uma, I decide to name my car, a tidewater blue 2009 Honda Fit, Alice. Alice is a good waitress name a la Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. And, according to Arlo Guthrie, You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant. If I can get anything I want out of this road trip, then maybe I’ll finally get something done. It’s about time.

Maddy is the main character of the atrocious novella I wrote in grad school. She has some family hang-ups and a tendency to drive around the country, so you can see she and I have, ahem, similar issues. The interesting thing about Maddy is not that she mirrors many aspects omy life. The interesting thing is that I wrote some plot elements into her story before the correlating events occurred in mine. So, for instance, I wrote that she runs into an old boyfriend before I started dating Mike a few months ago, Mike who was also my boyfriend in high school.

Maddy has brother issues. I’ve started the novella (now a novel) in a million different ways, but currently, it starts with a prologue, a scene from her childhood. It goes like this:

My Hello Kitty alarm clock paws showed it was three in the morning when Cory tried waking me, but at ten years old, I slept as if drugged and never woke with glee. His gentle prods were incorporated into dreams until the malty cozy odor of his breath permeated my consciousness. He leaned in to touch my shoulder, saying, “Wake up, Maddy May.” I broke down and opened my eyes to see his pale face smiled down on me. In the room lit only by the dim watery shadows sneaking around the window shades, his features fell into shades of gray, like the hero of a 1950s matinee: straight nose, high cheeks, round eyes with the outrageously long lashes that threw shadows and made strangers call him pretty as a child. With his changed voice finished with cracking and shoulders broadening by the day, girls turned to look at him in the supermarket. Even the mothers too, sometimes. His classic symmetry would have been dull if not for the dark blue of his eyes, unnervingly liquid like a bottomless lake. He reached out to push a strand of hair off my forehead, and I heard the rustling of the nylon in his jacket, the swish of his restless motion. “Time to explore,” he said. I sat up in a rush of understanding. Road trip. These night wanderings were our time, unknown to anyone except us and unspoken of between us during daylight. He handed me my wool coat as I stumbled around the darkened room pulling clothes over my pajamas. “Dress warm -- it’s cold,” he said. 

Once bundled and already beginning to overheat under my layers, he took my hand and led me through the darkened house down the stairs. At the second to the last stair, as always, I paused, and he grabbed my arms and swung me over the stair that squeaked and I remembered not to giggle at my moment of weightlessness. We slipped out into the kitchen, where light pouring though the glass of the back door. I knew then that Cory had chosen this night not just because he’d already spent the early part of the evening before curfew sneaking beers in Marty Spinks’ basement down the street, but because the world outside was transformed. No one, except us, yet knew.

Snow, wet, fat flakes, fell gently over the yard, clinging to the maple and apple trees, outlining every branch. Several inches already obscured the grass and the slate stone path. Street lights reflected wildly off whiteness. Our bad weatherman had missed this, predicting a cold sleet, but here was a world untouched by muddy drizzle.

Walking down the street, we listening to the drifting of flakes and the sound of puffed-up water collapsing under our feet. Neither of us spoke, although Cory pointed once, to a tree branch leaned over under the weight, forming a snowy cave. At Pearson Elementary School, where I would be not attending the fourth grade the next day because of the snow, we had the playground to ourselves. No one would see our tracks there until the sledders arrived after late breakfasts and hot chocolate.

We might have been the last people alive. Certainly, we were the only ones awake for miles around. We paused at the top of the stairs leading down the jungle gyms. He took my hand again, and said, “I wanted you to see this, Maddy May. You’ll always remember, won’t you?” I nodded my promise. Then, with a whispered whoop that echoed unevenly in the gray sky, he dropped my hand and said, “Race you to the bottom.” He rushed forward, one gloved hand clutched to the banister, pushing off the snow. I hurried behind, falling and sliding in his snowy footprints.
As a beginning, it’s a little schmalty, but I’m fond of the image anyway. In graduate school, I once got a long, long lecture from Professor Goran about how one should never, ever use a prologue. But really, it’s relevant. We love people in our childhood as we can’t as adults. Fearlessly, before trusts are broken. I wanted that as the premise. Maybe disillusionment and innocence lost is a little passé. But I’m OK with that.

I too have brother issues. My brother, five years older than me, is autistic. He doesn’t speak, will never speak, and has been institutionalized since he was seven and I was two. My sister recently told me, however, that when we were kids, my mother used to lock him in his room, using a roll of socks to jam the door, because otherwise, he’d wander around in the middle of the night, going from room to room.

Maybe he stood and stared at me in my crib. Maybe I knew that.

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