Part 1: Encouragement and a Short Story Class
So many people who knew me in my previous life incarnations as an at-home Mom, or – even further back – as an office/facilities manager, ask me how I ended up as a romance novelist. It’s not a very long story, so I figure…why not share it for posterity?
I had been in the trenches of motherhood for eight years. Hm. That sounds like being in war. I don’t quite mean it like that. I love being a mom. I love my children more than anything in the world. But being an at-home mom is hard work and you essentially subjugate your adult self for the good of your home and offspring. I admire this choice and more, I respect it. But it is a very, very personal choice, and for me, after eight years, it turned out that being an at-home mom and a homemaker wasn’t enough. I still wanted to be an at-home mom. It’s just that the adult woman inside of me needed…more.
Not HAVING more made me feel a little down. I ate too much. I worried about my health. I was bored. I spent too much money on silly things. Frankly, I think I was getting depressed. I ran into a friend (Randi Davis) at the nail place where I was spending too much time and money and shared my woes with her. Getting straight to the heart of the matter, she insisted that I take a class or find an interest. I searched for a local class on my iPhone as my nails dried. Flower arranging? Maybe. German as a second language? Nein. Hmmm. Short Story Writing with published author Chris Belden. Well, huh. I didn’t have much experience writing aside from e-mails, but people had always told me I had a way with words…I signed up.
That class met every Wed from Jan-June and I learned more than I ever imagined. I wrote a short story a week and suddenly my life started looking up. If I had free time, I didn’t snack or worry about my health (vicious circle!), I’d write a story. It made me think. It helped me find my way out of the trenches. It gave me a new purpose…AND I LOVED it. Loved it. Loved it.
(You want to read one of my first stories? Why sure…I’ll attach the VERY FIRST short story I ever wrote. I wrote it on Feb 1, 2012. It’s slightly creepy and not at all romantic. Enjoy.)
But, June came. The class was over. And I stopped writing. Literally, stopped. Kaput.
(Tune in for Part 2 tomorrow!!)
He stands still on the lawn for a moment, but he doesn’t look back. He waits until he hears the roar, the excited licking, and then he starts moving, his steps on the pavement measured and even: clip, clap, clip, clap. The orange and red and blue monster behind him will whip and eat and wheeze and chomp, screaming and heaving, until its meal is finished. Barry will be far away by then.
He turns the corner ahead, and hears glass exploding far behind him. He hears the screams of his erstwhile neighbors, and way in the distance, the sound of sirens. He doesn’t break stride. There is nothing left behind him. He knows where he is going.
His usual seat is not available today. He usually sits in the farthest seat in the back of the bus, on the left side, by the window. He has tried many seats, but this is the best one. There are two young women sitting in these seats today, and he looks at them resentfully, angrily, as he sits down next to the window, in the farthest seat on the right side instead. Above him, there are storage bins and shelves, and he doesn’t like it one bit. On the other side, there are advertisements only and nothing can fall on your head mid-ride. This is not his seat, and it is very hard for Barry to think of anything else. Someone else is in my seat. This is not my seat. This is not the right seat. Someone else is in my seat.
It’s hot and the window next to Barry is stuck in the closed position. His face starts to get shiny and red from the heat in the bus and the frustration in his head. The window on the left side is working fine. He closes his eyes and clenches his jaw.
The bus stops and an older woman gets on the bus. Her hands are laden with packages and bags, and she walks with a slight limp. She makes her way slowly down the aisle of the packed bus until she gets to Barry. She looks at him meaningfully, at his briefcase taking up an otherwise unoccupied seat. He glances at her face, straightens his glasses and then looks out the window.
As the bus starts up again, one of the two young girls on the left side offers her seat to the older woman, and stands up in the aisle as the bus starts to move. She places two of the old woman’s packages over his head, and Barry winces. Barry doesn’t see the dirty look the young woman gives the back of his head for some time.
There is a child somewhere on the bus humming a song in a jerky rhythm.
Somewhere there is whining.
The old woman keeps slurping and coughing, her bags crinkling every time she shifts.
The two young women are talking about someone, and one will occasionally make a very high, trilling laugh.
Two older women in the front are speaking in a guttural foreign language.
A man three seats away is eating an apple, taking large bites and chewing.
Barry clenches his hands so hard that his finger nails draw blood from his palm. He clenches his eyes so hard, he sees stars. He finally opens his eyes and the billboard over his usual seat catches his eyes: “Amtrak: Get Away from it All!” There is a picture of a man on a mountaintop wearing a suit, holding a suitcase. There is a train chugging away in the distance, puffs of pretty smoke obscuring the pine trees at the base of the mountain. Under the picture it reads: “The California Zephyr.”
Zephyr. Zephyr. Zephyr. The word rolls around in his head, euphonious and soothing. He closes his eyes and leans into the sound.
The driver stops abruptly at the 6th stop light, which startles Barry and jerks him out of his reverie. He looks out the window. He is on the engine side – this is the wrong side – and can see the puffs of smoke emitting from the bus. Every 4 seconds. Puff, 1234, puff, 1234, puff, 1234.
The light turns green. The bus moves forward. When Barry looks back, the puffs are gone and he can’t see them anymore.
“They’re ready for you in the conference room, Barry.”
He gets up from his orderly desk and straightens his glasses. This could change things, he thinks.
“Yes. Barry. Hello there! Take a seat.”
Barry sits down in a seat 4 chairs away from his boss, Stan Halvorsen, which is 5 seats away from Stan’s boss, William Fogarty. William Fogarty of Fogarty, Dunham and Young.
“Barry, we’ve seen some great things in your work this year. Great head for numbers.”
“Yes, analysis. Great head for numbers and analysis, Barry.”
“And very punctual with his reports.”
“Well, now, punctual is good.”
“We can count on Barry for the DDQ every other day. Like clockwork.”
“You don’t say. That’s terrific.”
“Reliable is good.”
Barry has stopped hearing them. He wants to clench his jaw or squeeze his eyes shut, but he controls the impulse which makes his head start to ache. Instead, he watches the smoke from their cigarettes circle around their heads and float away, up to the ceiling, out the door, away from this insidious banter, until he can’t see it anymore. He looks out the window at the mountains in the distance. Get away from it all. Zephyr. Zephyr. Zephyr.
“So, Phil Smith is going to be our man for Creative this quarter. Phil’s idea for the – the –"
“The Swedish line –“
“Westwinds collection –“
“Yes, the furniture. Edgy stuff. Modern.”
“He’s a whiz kid, that Smith!”
“You’re needed in analysis, Barry, so that’s where you’re staying.”
“Forever, if we have our way!”
“Keep up the good work with those DDQ reports. Someone’s got to do them!”
“Barry’s your man, sir!”
Barry straightens his glasses, and then looks them both in the eye. 1 second. 1 second. Nods his head at each. He knows that they want that nod and maybe even a smile that says “I get it. Fine by me, men!” The old anger surges up, hot and angry and hungry. Barry smiles.
She is sitting at his kitchen table when he gets home. She often does this. Waits for him, smoking her cigarettes until his kitchen stinks of fish, stale tobacco and five-and-dime perfume. He throws up into his mouth as he walks in the door. She is talking on his telephone with her back to him.
“How else would he eat?!…Who else would take care of him?!…No, Darlene, you don’t understand…a brother like this –“
The door closes as Barry enters the room, and his sister changes to her soft voice, which registers less like nails on a chalkboard for Barry; more like bees buzzing around the room, hundreds of bees, by his head, in his head, stinging his brain.
“You-know-who just got home…yeah.” Her voice changes again. Now it’s theatrical; cheerful and animated, about as genuine as plastic. “So how are the kids? Yeah? Good. I know. So fast. They were all babies yesterday. HA HA HA. Darlene, you’re a card. HA HA HA. We’re hosting tomorrow. I made casserole. Oh, you! You’re too much. Yes, yes. Tomorrow. Bye now!”
He is clenching his jaw so hard he can feel the hinge threatening to pop. He has dislocated his jaw before, and knows it will be painful if it happens again, so he straightens his glasses, and clenches his eyes instead. It’s so hot outside, and the oven’s been on for an hour cooking tuna casserole. It’s smoky and perfumey and the tuna stinks. He is still standing in the open doorway when she turns to speak to him.
“Cat got your tongue, Bar? Listen, Mommy and Papa would go nuts, just nuts, if they saw the rings on the coffee table in the living room. They didn’t leave you this house so you could go ahead and ruin their things. I got it out the best I could. Rolling over in their graves, Bar. There’s casserole in the oven.” She pauses, and then bellows, “YOU’RE WELCOME. God, Bar! I brought the casserole. I cleaned the drink rings. SAY SOMETHING, FOR GOD’S SAKES.”
God’s sake. He stares at her for 5 seconds, her face distorted and ugly from cheap make-up that doesn’t wear well by the end of the day. He can see her bra strap peeking out from her housedress and sweat stains under her arms. She is irritated, and has her elbow on her hip and her cigarette protruding in the air as she screams and shrieks and bellows and gestures. He can’t help it. He straightens his glasses and smirks.
She grabs her coat, and heads for the door.
“YOU CALL THIS A LIFE? WHAT MATTERS, BARRY? WHAT MATTERS TO YOU?! ANYTHING?!” Her face red – almost purple – hot with fury.
She slams the aluminum door and is gone.
The slamming door reverberates in Barry’s ear, and he braces himself on the countertop, his palms sweaty and hot. After a moment, he opens the door and the smoke moves towards it like a wave, as if drawn by an invisible vacuum to the sky. He watches it go until he can’t see it anymore.
He has been sitting at the kitchen table for sometime. For 162 minutes. He can’t smell her cigarette or perfume anymore. He can’t smell the tunafish that is now a charcoal mass. The acrid smoke is just now starting to fill the room, and that smell is starting to bother him.
He is wearing a suit. The small suitcase at his feet waits patiently. Barry waits patiently.
Then he hears it – the sudden low rumble followed by an angry hiss. He slowly gets up from the table. The heat has changed in an instant, and he picks up the suitcase. He opens the door, and watches as the smoke tries to follow him, the flames from the stove suddenly whipping higher, angrier, more agitated and furious with the air coming in. He steps outside, and closes the door with a whoosh, walking into the clean night air.
The smoke is trapped inside. Pooling at the window on the cheap storm door. Desperate to escape. Desperate to get out of there. But, it can’t see Barry anymore.
He hears her voice in his head, You call this a life? What matters, Barry? What matters to you?! ANYTHING?! Her voice is echo-y and distorted, grabby for answers. Shrill. Demanding. He imagines his ears bleeding, the blood pooling in his eardrums until it changes from red to black, then spilling out of the pink shell-curves of his ears. His fingers clench for a moment and he works his jaw. He turns another dark corner. Clip-clap-clip-clap. Another. Another. Now it is really dark. Now his shoes don’t clip, clap anymore. It will be a bit of a walk, and a bit of a wait, but things will be different now.