Thursday, January 31, 2013

draft excerpt from SADIE

draft excerpt from the new novel temporarily titled SADIE Starlings—a mad whirling rush—move as one and peck, peck, peck at the last of the brown apples frozen on the tree. They are a blast of black. Out of nowhere. And leave as suddenly as they appeared. Chickadees and blue jays scratch for sunflower seeds. Kick and scatter the cheap stuff to the ground. But the pigeons bobbing and weaving through the snow don’t care. They’re after anything. Gobbling it up. And their size shows it. I think of them plucked. Gutted. Sautéed with mushrooms and onions and butter in a big, cast iron pan. Not because I’m hungry, but because it is ten minutes to noon on a Thursday and I’ve been drinking. Dewar’s on the rocks. And I’m trying my damndest to strike some balance. Keep me on track. I haven’t seen my daughter in two weeks. My agent, Greta has spent the last two nights with me on the island. And in three days the divorce is final. There is too much going on to write. There is too much going on not to write. All I want to do is grab the shotgun, bundle up, and walk the woods. Follow rabbit tracks. Spook birds. But getting out and about only gets me farther away from the words. I don’t know of any place on the island to hunt. And I have a deadline to meet. The book must be completed by the end of the month. In fifteen days. And even though I can see the ending, I’m not sure how to get there. And when a writer is so set on making it to where he needs to be, there is nothing he can do or not do that will help him or stop him from getting there. And so, he drinks. Fucks his agent. And drinks. And buys a house on Mackinac Island and tells himself that he will not leave the island until the house is paid for or someone dies. And the worst part about it is that he knows the next book will be good and because of that it will not sell. Be widely read. Or pay for the house. And so he will have to write another and another and he is sure that dying is something he will not see for years—no matter how hard he tries—and so leaving the island will be the result of learning that someone he has known and possibly loved has died. ~ copyright 2013 by K.J. Stevens

Thursday, January 24, 2013

making it through

All of us made it through. Another day of going our separate ways. Little Man to first grade. S.B. to Gallery 109. Oogie to child care. And me—tucked away in a cubicle—doing my best even though I know my best should be spent home. With family. At the keys. Writing stories. But most of the time what I know matters very little and so I listen to others. Do what’s asked. Do what I’m told. Make sure that—above all—we are able to stretch far enough to make ends meet. So at the end of the day all of us can be together. In our old house. Eat supper. Keep warm. Like tonight. I’d just poured a glass of wine. Was ready to get at the keys. Had walked into the living room to kiss S.B. just in case she went to bed before me. And there was my boy. Looking too big for his Sponge Bob pajamas. Out of bed even though he’d already been tucked in. Read to. Gone through the nightly ritual. He was talking to S.B. “Why don’t you ever remember to check on me in my room?” he said. “I check on you every night,” said S.B., “But you’re always sleeping.” “You do?” Little Man said. And he smiled. “Yes, she does,” I said. “And I do too. Every night. Only it’s always very late and you’re gone away in dreams.” “Why do you check on me so late?” he asked. “Daddy doesn’t sleep,” said S.B. “He walks around the house at night looking out windows. Checking locks. And watching us sleep.” “Is that true?” he asked. “It is,” I said. “But don’t you get tired?” “Sometimes,” I said. “But it’s normal for Dads not to sleep.” He hugged S.B. Hugged me. Went back with great peace of mind to his room. And there was my wife. Sweet S.B. Rosy-cheeked. Hair pulled back. Wearing my old, green, long-sleeved shirt. Somehow looking more and more beautiful every minute of every day so that lately all I want to do is kiss her. Hug her. Ger her alone. In the bedroom. The bathroom. The den. And she, unfortunately, inexplicably cannot understand this crazy late January desire. I set my wine on the end table. Leaned into her. Kissed her neck. Took a deep breath. Wished we could just have more time. “He’s in bed. She’s watching a movie. I’m going to write,” I said. “Okay, honey.” She kissed my cheek. “Go make us some money,” she said. But before I go to the kitchen to top off my wine and sit in the breakfast nook to work on the novel, I stop in my daughter’s room. She is stretched out on her belly. Watching Madagascar. “You ready for me to tuck you in?” I ask. She looked at me. Hugged her zebra. “No, but you can lay with me and snuggle,” she said. She pulled back the covers. “You can set your wine over there,” she said and pointed to her kitchen set. “And you can watch Madagascar and snuggle with me.” There is nothing else for a man to do, but put off writing a little while longer. Set his wine on the tiny stove top. Stuff himself into a tiny bed. Snuggle. Watch Madagascar. And wonder what it will be like in a few hours after all of them have gone to bed and he is fighting the tireds because he’s worked on the novel. Written a blog. Had another glass of wine. And he is moving closer to that part in the night where he cannot sleep. And he paces the old hardwood floors. Not because he is sad. Not because of stress. Not because of anything at all except that he loves this. Checking on his boy. Blankets pulled tight to his chin. Peeking in on his daughter. Stuffed animals piled all around her. Standing in the bedroom doorway. His wife asleep. Hugging his pillow. Wearing his old shirt. And the moon breaking through the parted curtains. Lighting him with perspective. Happiness. Because all of them are doing it. Their best. To make it through. ~ K.J.

Monday, January 14, 2013

not fade away

Set it straight. A little at a time. Even if it takes Monday night. The keys. Wine. Thirty-nine letters to agents. Dismal sales. The push toward forty. Writing better these days than ever before, but so far behind that it’s like I’m 27. Cocky and strong. Trying to break on through to the other side. Take a little piece of her heart. And hers and hers and hers. And burn out instead of fade away. But hey, I’m still alive. And the tick of the clock does not bother me. 10:28. 11:45. 3:00 in the morning. My daughter wakes. Three years old. Blonde hair shocking the air like Einstein. Clutching her stuffed hound. “Will you turn the light on?” she asks. “It’s already on,” I say. “But I can carry you there.” She smiles. Just a bit. Because smiling is hard when you’ve been sleeping eight hours. The floors are cold. And you’re afraid of the dark. “But the light, Daddy.” “It’s already on,” I say again. And I lift her. Slowly. As if this may be the last time. And she hugs me. Puts her face into my neck. And I know that this is where I’m supposed to be. Writing for the world the does not listen. Growing old in this small town. Sitting at the big dining room table. My boy asleep down the hallway. Clutching the book I read to him before bed. My wife asleep in our room just a few feet away. And me awake with things that cannot be understood—not yet, not now, because they must be wrestled out over time with these keys—and my daughter. Awake too. Because she has to pee. “Thank you, Daddy,” she says, as she steps out of the bathroom. Smiles. This time a little wider. “Thank you,” I say. “You’re such a big girl. One day you won’t need Daddy for anything.” She hugs me. The house, so quiet, is just ours. I carry her to her room. “I will need you for the light,” she says. I lay her in bed. She snuggles with the stuffed hound. I tuck her in. “But sometimes the light will already be on,” I say. “But I’ll need you to carry me,” she says. “Not always,” I say. “Oh, Daddy,” she says. “You just don’t understand.” “I guess not,” I say. And kiss her cheek. And she waves. And I wave. And it’s off to this. The same thing I’ve been doing for as long as I can remember, which is the same thing I’ll be doing for as long as it takes. To set it straight. A little at a time. Even if it takes Monday night. The keys. Wine. Thirty-nine letters. Dismal sales. And the push toward forty. With me writing better but so far behind that it’s like I’m 27. Cocky and strong. Dumb as shit. But doing my best. To break on through to the other side. Take a little piece of her heart. And walk that fine line that men sometimes walk when they know there is a good chance that they will burn out before fading away. ~ K.J.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

focused on the now

A morning walk. The four of us holding hands. Past our shop—closed until Spring—then down 2nd Avenue. Sleepy Alpena. Little Man and Oogie chattering. S.B. dreaming aloud. About art, the business, what may be waiting. In five years. A few months. Maybe just over the bridge. Things can change suddenly. Weirdly. Without warning. But I don’t let it—my writer’s mind—get the best of me. Instead of tuning into the mess of movement that plays through continuously like motion pictures somewhere up there behind my eyes, I focus on the now. Big wooden crate in the window of the antique store—we’re into those lately. Puddles—winter today is melting away. Oogie—fidgeting and fidgeting with her gloves. Little Man—getting too far ahead. “Stop!” I say. He is caught up in one-foot-in-front-of-the-other. On the move. And when he is moving, he is much like me. Not thinking, but feeling. The warm sunlight. Lake Huron air. Wide open space that begs a boy to run. “See that?” I ask. He looks at the signal. “Don’t walk,” he says. “Exactly. Just wait a minute and then it will change.” “Count to sixty,” says S.B. I look to Oogie. She smiles. I look to S.B. She smiles. I look at Little Man and he is deep in the counting. He gets to 20 and the light changes. “Hey!” he says. “That wasn’t sixty!” “We got lucky,” says S.B. “We didn’t have to wait a full minute.” On the bridge, we pass a short burly man. He’s in an insulated plaid shirt. Camo baseball cap. Wearing what looks to be safety glasses. He is fishing. No bucket. No tackle box. Just a pole. Line dangling all the way down to the black Thunder Bay River that is filled with jagged white ice floes and happy ducks. I’m not sure what he’s after. If he’s after anything at all. And I know how it is sometimes—when you just want to get out, be near the water, alone—so I don’t say a word. The four of us pass the one of him in complete silence as the river pushes into the lake. Ice melts. The world spins round and we somehow hold fast to this—our place—just a horsefeather away from the 45th parallel. We walk. Little man up front. Me and S.B. side-by-side with Oogie close behind. Another storefront. I see us. A reflection. A family passing by. And I see furniture I like but cannot afford. There is the great theater we need more of. The restaurant we’ve sworn off. And as we pass Fletcher Street Brewery, I say to the kids, “Mommy and Daddy will be dancing there tonight!” “We will?” S.B. asks. The kids laugh. “Sure,” I say, “Depends on how much we drink.” She laughs. Smiles. And it is yet again one of those moments where I wonder how on earth this woman decided to shackle herself to me. A moody, stubborn man that always seems to want more than he has. Cannot function without writing. And fights daily to maintain the balance our family needs. “Let’s run!” I say, and me and Oogie and Little Man run and run and run. When we stop, we all kind of go our separate ways. Little Man moves up the river walk. Far ahead to where Lady Michigan sits when the weather is warm and tourists are ready to spend, spend, spend. Oogie picks up small rocks. Stones. Names the ice floes as they drift by. “A triangle!” she says. “A house! A diamond!” And I stand there, looking at the river. Watching my boy. My girl. Looking back at my wife as she catches up. Slowly. At her own pace. Her curly locks bouncing. That contagious smile. And as the day warms and the river lets loose and the sun brings Spring to January, our town, our life, our choices look perfect. And I am humbled by the fact that things change suddenly. Weirdly. Without warning. And I am hopeful as we move through this motion picture. Living dreams aloud. Focused on the now. ~ K. J.

Monday, January 7, 2013

the bitch of it

Work on the novel. Write about a man that’s found his wife cheating. About eating bacon and eggs with his little daughter on the first day of their last long weekend. Write about being a writer—something that everyone has always told you not to do—and do it well enough so that you can show them that anything can be done and is worth doing if you have balls enough to try and do it better than anyone. And drink wine. And sit in the basement. And watch the dog guard her bone from the cats. Her crazy anxiety over protecting a two-foot long Christmas present rawhide. And keep tapping those keys. And listening to the boiler. And staring at the old stone walls while you sit at the old wooden desk and try to figure out how the hell you are going to keep it going and make money at it and take care of your wife and your kids long after you are gone. ∞ “You’ll be known when you’re dead,” Chad said to me one night, not too long ago, at the Black Sheep. “Jesus,” I said. “Thanks.” We sipped our scotch. “I’m serious,” he said. “What you’re doing won’t be understood until you’re dead.” I looked around the place. Tried to take myself away from what he was saying because it was not the kind of thing a man who had written six unsuccessful books wanted to hear. There were three old women in a booth. Laughing. Drinking Manhattans. There was my old Creative Writing teacher, Mr. Bray and his pretty wife at the end of the bar, drinking beer. And then there was us. Me and Chad. Bellied up to the bar. Just before noon on a Friday. I did not want to consider that my writing life could end like this. So-so. A Wikipedia blip in Alpena history. A footnote in some grad student’s paper on minimalism. A tiny notch in the literary bedpost. But the truth of it was—and is—that Chad’s ending was probably just about right. Not because I would be dead. And not because I would be famous. But because if I continued to live by his understanding and my belief—that nothing mattered, that all I really had to do was love my wife and love my kids and put words to paper whenever I could—then my life and theirs would probably be pretty goddamned good. “You are a little right,” I said to him. “And that’s the bitch of it.” We finished the scotch. Ordered more. But we did not talk much more about writing—especially mine—because talking about my writing was, to me, just as bad as reading it aloud to a bunch of strangers. Very much like jerking off in public. All the romance gone. Just trying to make a scene. The meaning missed. Nothing but emptiness. “At least you’re doing it,” he said and he raised his drink. I tapped my glass to his. Thought about Chad. What a good friend he’d always been. And I thought maybe I would write about him one day. That I would share with people how good he was. What a straight-shooter he’d always been. And that it was one of the few times in my life that I wanted to write well about someone I knew. “I am doing it,” I said. “And nobody knows. But the best part of it is that now, I know that for the past twenty years—even though I’ve only been married and a Dad for six—that always, I’ve been writing for S.B. and the kids.” “Goddammit, Stevens,” he said. “Don’t say things like that. You’re not supposed to talk like that. You’re supposed to write it down.” And so we stopped talking about it. Drank a little more. Talked to Paul and Mary Bray. Listened to the old ladies get tipsy. And I thought about working on the novel. Writing about being a writer—something that everyone always told me not to do—so that I could show them it could be done. All it took was practice and believing you had balls bigger than you really did and doing it better than anyone. And drinking wine. And sitting in the basement. And watching the dog guard her bone from the cats. Her crazy anxiety over protecting a two-foot long rawhide Christmas present. And tapping the keys. Over and over and over again. Listening to the boiler. Staring at the old stone walls. Trying to figure out how the hell I’m going to keep it going. Make money. And take care of S.B. and the kids long after I’m gone. ~ K.J.