In my zeal for healthy eating and because I was out of potato chips, when I took a writing break today, I decided to stick some kale in the oven and make kale chips -a little salt, a little olive oil . . . I carefully picked off the leaves and washed them. There was something brown I thought was a bad branch so I poked at it. It was a little soggy. Hmmm, thought I, a rotten spot, and I scrounged around for my reading glasses, which I almost immediately wished I hadn't found because the rotten spot was actually a huge caterpillar or worm or whatever, and it was still alive!!! I've JUICED with that kale! I've had that kale in my REFRIGERATOR! By the time I took pictures of the thing and got the store manager on the line (Do you ever actually LOOK at your produce???) I was already feeling a few retroactive caterpillar-worm-juice consumption repercussions. The manager informed me that the kale was from California and assured me there are no poisonous caterpillars OR worms in California, which I'm sure he hasn't actually researched, and said the whole point of not using insecticides is to not kill things (including humans) which I suppose is true. He assured me I have a freebie coming. It won't be kale! My husband, after making sure the cats wouldn't find it because, of course, their constant hunting and mole eating has made their systems far more delicate than mine, suggested it was a bookworm.
I was looking out at the garden where there will be vegetables eventually, where other things will sprout up unexpectedly and unidentifiably from the compost pile of juiced plant insides. I was thinking about my neighbor who disappeared five days ago and Brown Eyed Girl was oozing out from somewhere in the yard, making me feel like dancing, like everything is fertile and returning and that when someone dies, when someone leaves, you feel it. There’s the loss, of course, the sadness, but there’s something else, too – a little surge of energy, as if the smallest piece of tapestry has broken off, a tiny piece of you, of me, of all of us, that now is free.
I never liked fireworks. I was okay with sparklers when I was little, but anything more explosive wasn’t my cup of tea. I can’t really point to a specific incident that scarred me physically or mentally. I just didn’t like them. Maybe there were too many explosions inside my house. Maybe in a previous life I died on a battlefield. Whatever the reason . . . Hated them.
When our girls were little, I made the obligatory yearly trips to see fireworks, armed with a blanket and picnic food, trekking uphill to meet friends, to wait out downpours, sitting slightly behind my daughters so they wouldn’t see me with my hands over my ears while they stared at the sky in wonder. Here was one thing about their childhoods I would not miss.
And then on my way home from dinner the other night, after storms had cleared away the heat, I had an overwhelming, totally baffling urge to stop and watch the fireworks in the same park where I’d sat year after year, waiting for the huge eruption of sound and color that signified the end of the show.
I couldn’t find the place. I drove around in circles until someone directed me to the origin of the spectacular explosions strewn across the sky. I found the park, finally, but the fireworks were already underway. Traffic was a snarl, the ground was sopping wet.
I pulled up against the curb. I hopped out and hurried along the street to find a good vantage point, edging my way into the lives and yards of strangers, edging my way back to another time, following the colors, the sounds, opening my eyes to the beauty, the fantastical, the phantasmagoric. Maybe it was this I craved, this I needed to hold onto, this small and unchanged piece of America.
I am fortunate to have the ear of the local Police Chief who has actually been all over the world in various heroic positions! He is very experienced and smart and, happily, very approachable, so if I have a police question that involves more than a yes or no Google-able answer I text him. If it’s really complicated, I might talk with him about it on the phone.
In my new novel, a victim is sprawled across a sidewalk in midtown Atlanta. For the sake of tidying up, I needed to get him out of there and off for autopsy but I wasn’t sure how this would happen exactly. Would he be slid into an ambulance and transported quietly with sirens off? Would he be in an ambulance with the siren blaring for immediacy? Would the Medical Examiners themselves pull out a stretcher and tuck him into another sort of vehicle on its way to another sort of place?
It was night time. It wasn’t especially late, but it was winter, so it was dark. And it wasn’t especially early either. I grabbed my cellphone out of my purse and scrolled through my list of contacts, tapped the Police Chief’s name and typed a quick text, asking him how to get a dead body out of the street or something equally ambiguous.
Apparently, I was not in his list of contacts.
There was a lengthy pause and then his reply, a simple inquiry before further action might be taken – phone traces, dragnets, dispatched cruisers with sirens of their own – His text came up with a little buzz. Who is this?
My parents died on Christmas Eve. Both of them. Several years apart – my father in Miami, his Christmas banana bread in tin foil on the counter, and his gift to me, a framed photo of our tiny daughters on their last visit, already wrapped. I arrived home just in time to say goodbye. A senseless death, preventable and arguably suit-worthy, but he was an alcoholic with a ruined liver and it was Christmas and the truth of things was buried in the shock, the ashes and rosaries and incense, in the toasts of old friends, the cushioned seats of limousines.
God, my sister and I said on the rare occasions that our mother spoke of that day. Just promise you won’t die on Christmas Eve. But she did. Fourteen years later. Almost the same minute of my father’s death, in another state, amid fake Christmas trees and empty cardboard wrapped to look like presents, in the whispered joviality of piped carols, the strange brightness of the ICU, she flew away. On Christmas Day I forged her signature and charged her last trip to Miami on her credit card, sorted through her closet for her favorite clothes, her new SASS shoes, her clip-on earrings, but not her wedding ring.
My parents weren’t well-matched. Their best times were captured in old photos on Lake Michigan before our births. The rest was aftermath. They turn up now and then in things I write, appear unbeckoned in my books, in my head. They climb out from behind a word, a sentence – clinging to the anger that spread across our childhoods like a fire. Out of control. Relentless, building on itself, destroying everything in its path and leaving only blackened bits of things, only wrecked scorched hollowed earth.
I used to think it was such an awful eerie thing, the two of them conspiring somehow to ruin Christmas from the grave. But now I don’t. Now I wonder if it meant something, the way they both left on the same day, that one magical day of all the days of the year. I wonder if they shook their heads and walked backstage to take a sad and surreptitious bow.
It was important for me to understand Dana, to try to see the world through her ultra-sharp lens, her terror and confusion and to hand that lens to readers. We tend to compartmentalize – bipolar here, schizophrenic there. It’s safer that way. We feel normal, secure. I think it’s far more complicated, that there isn’t one thick line that separates us – that so much of what determines who we are, who we become, our sanity or lack of it, depends on circumstance, on voices from the past that whisper in our ears or lodge themselves in our heads. I hope my readers will relate to Dana on some level. They don’t have to love her. It wasn’t my intent to make her loved, but understood.
Dorrie, in The Other Widow, falls for someone else’s husband and instantly becomes the proverbial detested other woman. We know her. She’s slept with our now exes, stolen our sister’s husband, come between our parents. She has no heart, this interloper, picking at the bones of someone else’s marriage. Again, different from us. We have morals, scruples – we draw boundaries. And so I made her flawed, conflicted, struggling with her alcoholic husband, stuffing glue in the cracks of a fractured life for the sake of the daughter they both love. He makes her feel alive, this man who isn’t hers. He gets her humor, notes her worth. He touches something in her she’d forgotten – he makes her feel alive, even if it’s only for stolen chunks of time, even if she is his Tuesday girl, his other woman, unable even to grieve openly when he is killed. She has friends and a cat. She makes veggie burgers and shares a bed with someone she no longer trusts and sometimes wonders if she loves. She’s vulnerable and tough, a woman in a dying marriage – much closer than we thought and more than a cliché. She could be our next-door neighbor, our best friend. She could be us. Again, the lines are blurred, the right and wrong, the black and white.
At readings, people often ask me how I came up with the story line. Someone posed this question to me once in a Starbucks. I kiddingly replied I’ve had a lot of affairs and killed a lot of people, but after the reaction I got from a passing coffee-purchaser, I no longer answer quite so flippantly. I believe we’re all a mix of good and bad, some of us more ethical than others; some embrace strict moral codes, some the Golden Rule. For me, there is always a struggle between thought and emotion, between sticking to the highway and wandering far afield. As in T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men, “between the idea and the reality. . . between the emotion and the response falls the shadow.” It is this pause, this indecision, this moment of truth, this “shadow” that will eventually enfold us all, trip us up or propel us forward if we’re human. If we’re at all alive. The women in my book are conflicted. They are complex, humorous, fairly normal people whose realities are shattered in one unlucky moment and whose silver lining is the chance they have to rearrange their lives before the pieces fall back into place.
Today I was driving past the building where I used to work before the state sold out and privatized the jobs we had for years, before that particular bullet was lodged in that particular educational foot. Maybe it was out of habit or nostalgia, the flower blossoms splattered in the parking lot, the café off the lobby with the giggly Chinese owners and the Tuesday Chicken Wraps. In any case I swerved in and sat there with my engine running for a minute, thinking about getting out and going inside, even though our whole department must be closed by now, the loose-end tiers having tied up the loose ends months ago.
I sat in a space beside an SUV with my hands on the steering wheel and remembered the time I thought I’d scratched a Lexus when I pulled in late and half awake, how I’d confessed this to the doorman. Mr. Wonderful, we called him. At least I did. He was retired from somewhere – I forget the story – and he ran a tight ship. Nothing escaped Mr. Wonderful – a hesitating car, a suspicious package – a dead engine; he was on it. I remembered him trekking out behind me in his boots the Morning of the Scratch, the coattails of his uniform flapping a little in the wind, how he stooped to eye the mark from every angle, flattening his hands in the air, calculating carefully before he found me innocent.
I was definitely lurking out there in the parking lot, definitely sliding around in time, remembering the Publix cakes in cardboard boxes, the prison papers inked with dreams, and all those secrets sealed inside a room with crappy lights. I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel and watched a woman I didn’t recognize go back inside and reappear with Mr. Wonderful in tow. She gestured toward my car, loitering and puffing in the space with all the rotted petals.
I thought about getting out, about waving my hands. I thought about saying “Hey! It’s me! Remember?” I didn’t though. I just backed out and left. It was like looking at a scene in a snow globe with all the people lined up and singing and the church and the shops and the snow falling down and everything’s the same but really nothing is.