I think she’s headed for Chesaleen’s


(A snippet of first-draft fiction for NaFloScribMo)

When I was twelve everything became too small and familiar. My mama’s house, my classroom at school, my little circle of friends I’d known everyday of my life, even my blue jeans suddenly became snug in places snug never landed before. And then I got The Visit.

I was completely unprepared for The Visit. I mean, there’d been talk at school and I’d heard mama whisper things about it, but it was a hazy something that never seemed important enough to ask about until I was Visited.

I was dying, knew that for certain. The pull at my belly was too painful for it to be just another sour stomach from too many radishes for lunch. I saw the blood when I went to the bathroom, so I knew I had a cancer or TB or something I’d never recover from, but I kept quiet because it was clear to me I’d have to die a private death. I was never going to let anyone look at my gunny to find the problem. So I sat there at dinner with mama and daddy and my two stupid brothers with a wad of tissue shoved between my legs.

Mama said grace. I couldn’t even consider thanking God for food when there I sat dying on a wad of toilet paper right there in front of my family, so I prayed extra hard instead so I could be strong for my dying moments and not be angry at God for the timing. Teetering on the razor edge of death is no time to start up something with God you can’t take back.

“Sister, I said ‘Pass them greens.’” I’d been praying so hard that when I looked up the whole mess of my family was staring at me like I’d just spilled kool-aid on the rug. I opened my mouth to tell them but all that came out was a wail I didn’t know I owned that lasted from the table clean into my bedroom behind a slammed door.

When mama came in she was mad as hell, hands on hips like one of them Amazon women. I could hear daddy’s boots shifting one foot to the other just outside the door, but I knew he’d stay out there and not come in to see my shame and dying because he couldn’t bear a crying woman.

“Explain yourself.” Mama’s plaid housedress towered over me on the bed and I was afraid, but not nearly as afraid of her as I was this dying.

“I’ve got the cancer, mama,” I wept through a whisper, “Don’t ask me to tell you where because I won’t.”

So mama just stood there and I just cried into my bed quilt for the longest time. I wanted hugging, but I wasn’t sure if I could give someone else the cancer and I just couldn’t be responsible for spreading dread disease. When Scrap Wilson got the fever, the health department man came out and put a quarantine sign over the door and everyone whispered hot and fierce about how wrong it was to subject a whole family to one man’s dying germs. I’d have to move out, I guessed, live in a tent all alone by the pond and wait it out until they found my body.

“You ain’t dying, Sister.”

Mama was unmoved and all I could hear was the muffling shuffle of daddy’s boots making their way back the kitchen. Ill as I was, there was only one thing to do.

Summoning the last of my living strength, I leapt past mama, slung open the door, stopped off quick in the bathroom to resupply, then ran through the kitchen and out the back door into the mosquito dusk. It was a long way to the road, but I ran it all with a half-roll of flowered toilet paper in my fist, and it wasn’t until I hit the gate that I looked back. No one was coming after me.

(This is another crooked piece of the Chesaleen stories. It’s NaFloScribMo rough, but there it is. I resisted the urge to write two pages on mama standing there hovering over the bed, which was the image I started with. We’ll see what happens when our new little woman makes it over to Chesaleen’s house and find out the real scoop.)

NaFloScribMo and the Incredible, Levitating Draft


Here’s the problem. I’m writing diligently on Chesaleen and getting into the wicked flow of the moment, angels dancing on heads of pins and the typewriter muse singing to me in Olivetti and such, and I suddenly realize there’s no story. None. The whole thing is going nowhere and seems to be mysteriously levitating, waiting for something to actually happen.

It’s possible to write seven pages of a story and find out it isn’t a story at all. It’s a prose poem or an articulated photograph or something. People talk and there’s insight and self-delusion enough to go around, but the action of getting from Point A to Point B just never materializes.

It’s entirely possible I’m writing outside my genre – not that I chose one in the first place. It chose me when I was a little girl. It’s frustrating to be labeled and even more so when it’s self-labeling, but it appears that at least for tonight, I’m a poet. Or a memoirist. Or a blogger. Dammit. Tonight I wanted to be a novelist.

So I have seven pages of Chesaleen sitting in the dark and listening to trains. I could cheat and call it backstory, but that’s just semantics. I’m going to put these pages away for National Rewrite Month and maybe they’ll look different then, but I doubt it. I like it too much to wad it up, although if I had a fire going I might consider throwing all seven pages into the flames, just for effect.

Maybe I’ll just have Chesaleen set something on fire.

Just don’t say "moniker." It’s pretentious.


I’m an unapologetic name collector. Usually I find them in phonebooks, but I’ve been known to eavesdrop on conversations at Wal-Mart and a few other places, wander off an aisle or two, and quickly scribble down stolen names from snippets of conversation. Sometimes I thieve entire conversations, but that’s a story for another day.
When I travel, which isn’t terribly often, I’ve been known to snag entire phonebooks so I may, once safely home, flip hungrily through foreign books and update my list. It’s a long list, but you can bet I’ve never been stuck for a character’s name. Not once. For me, nothing makes the writing go faster. There are actors who can’t get into character until they find the right pillbox hat or slip on the perfect pair of wingtips. When I’m writing fiction, it’s the name.
There’s a lot of mojo in the perfect name. That’s why all these uptight new parents now spend an extravagance on naming services for their bouncing baby whatevers. It makes me laugh, especially since a generation or so ago people were having too many kids to even care. There was a formula: name the first boy after his dad, and all ensuing boys after various uncles or near-relations. John. Robert. William. Girls were named after grandmothers and aunts , or flowers, as long as the name wasn’t too ugly or the female relative too morally loose. My ex-father-in-law’s name is LD. No periods. It’s not short for anything nor does it represent his initials. Granny Fason just had too many damn kids and very little creativity. He has a brother named JD. You see what I mean.
Not many couples have seven or eight kids anymore unless they’re a Duggar. At least they have a whole Bible full of names to choose from. Now there’s research into meanings, hidden, obvious, and historic in a name. It has to stand out, give the child a head start in an ugly, competitive, eat-‘em-alive world. Forget the fat books full of baby names, over-pay some opportunist to name your kid Apple.
Actually, that’s good advice when naming characters – forget the baby name books. Otherwise everyone in your stories will sound like soap stars. Chance. Trace. Skye. Unless you’re actually writing soaps…or those bodice-rippers I used to read in junior high with Fabio (there’s another one) on the cover.
I like the phonebooks because those names are real and they cross several generations of naming trends. A good small-town, southern phonebook can take you to naming places you never thought possible. Twanette. Loyce. Crescentia. Eulid. Vernadean. Eightha. Thurl. And those are my throw-aways. I have hundreds of others I’d use in second. Names like Portia, Sulie, Ever, Warfield, and Rueben just write their own stories.
Some are just too unbelievable to use. For example, I went to school with a girl named Listerine Piggee, bless her heart. Another gal who sweated on the first day of school was Vagina (pronounced va-geena) Sumpter. Luckily, calling roll on the first day of school the teachers always lilted, “Miss Sumpter?” giving poor Va-geena the benefit of the pause. I’ve used this roll-calling trick myself when face-to-rollbook with an unfortunately named student. I do appreciate an unusual name, but not when it victimizes. No character – living or created – should have to answer to Listerine.

Remembering Iva


It’s bad luck to speak ill of the dead. But Christmas is coming and we’ve been dragging out all the old photo albums, and there she is. Iva. Maw. My ex-grandmother-in-law and the meanest woman I ever met.

I honestly can’t remember a moment of kindness from that woman that wasn’t followed up by some horrific stab in the back. Or the eye. That was her M.O. – make you feel comfortable for an hour or so, then viciously attack the very thing you care about most. Iva talked about you behind your back and to your face, both with a cruelty that could take your breath away. And no one was spared. For Iva, truth was relative. If she thought about some imagined wrong done to her enough, then it really happened. The telling and retelling of the lie made it true enough to her to invoke a confrontation. Iva was a tornado dropping out of the sky, decimating everything in its path, then just as mysteriously lifting back into a harmless cloud.

From a distance, Iva was fascinating. I only knew her in bits and pieces, but what I know is that her mother was a cold, silent, stubborn Native American of various tribes, depending on who told the stories. Iva picked cotton and lived scarce, even when she married Ben Prouse (or Prowse – spelling was optional in that part of Faulkner County). Ben was a red-headed Irishman who must have been in the Navy at some point, but who ended up in Naylor, Arkansas with Iva. They had three children, the youngest dying as a child from a burst appendix. Ben died from a heart attack many years ago and the picture of him prone in the coffin at his funeral is still in a photo album somewhere. Iva took the picture. I’m still haunted by the image of a woman leaning over her husband’s casket with a Polaroid flashing. It’s unsettling.

My timeline’s a little fuzzy, but not long after Ben died, Iva retired. She’d worked at the Children’s Colony (now the Conway Human Development Center) for a number of years. I’m not sure I understand how she worked with mentally retarded children, because it didn’t suit her personality at all. At any rate, there was an accident at work involving a kiddie train ride that circled the Children’s Colony estate and Iva had been on the train with her charges. I’m not sure if or how badly she was injured, but the state paid her a nice settlement and she went home for the duration.

There, she made life a particular hell for her remaining son and daughter, as well as their spouses, children and ex-wives. Oh, the stories I could tell. I’ll leave everyone else out of this, though, because in the end, Iva is enough.

She dated a lot for a church-woman, danced every Saturday night in El Paso, and had men sleep over, much to the disgust of her relatives. She even married a couple of them. One in particular was a strange man with a metal plate in his head who sold some of her belongings at the Naylor Auction. He eventually shot himself in the head right there in her house. She was in her seventies, then.

Christmas in Naylor followed a predictable pattern. The celebration was always on Christmas Eve at my in-law’s home, and the house was festive, food and children everywhere. Just as predictable was Iva’s yearly Christmas tirade. She’d pick a target each year and hammer-down. After years of this, I quit trying to understand why she wanted to ruin everyone’s good time and simply counted the minutes until it happened.

Some Christmases ago, it was my daughter. Iva’s cruelty dropped out of the sky and landed squarely on Emily in the middle of her yearly Naylor Christmas Eve. She was seventeen. I understand the ensuing scrap between her father and “Maw” over the attack ended with Rick wishing “the old bitch would just die” and Iva’s furious stomp off across the road to her house to do just that.

When her son looked for her on Christmas morning, he found her on the toilet, dead from a heart attack.

If there’s a lesson here, I’d rather not attempt it. Out in the County, things are what they are. The family, extended and close, breathed a collective sigh of relief and buried her. I’m sure that like all good people, they try to remember the better parts of Iva.

I keep writing bits and pieces of her into my stories. She’s not the kind of character to write “as is,” though, because she was her own literary cliché. No one would believe her unless I made her a little kinder, so I’m giving her a sort of eulogistic synopsis here. In my stories, she’ll just have to be a little less Iva.

Delicate Handwork


Miss Della and Miss Faye thread needles one after the other after the other evenings on Fourth Street. They embroider spiraling initials and rosettes on ladies hankies, marching monograms on men’s shirt cuffs. The shop is small and on the first floor of the gray saltbox by the train tracks. They thread their needles at night on the second floor, where Miss Della makes tiny casseroles for their dinner and Miss Faye, on good, days looks out the window watching the trains pass. On bad days, Faye works meticulously on a set of handkerchiefs that were never ordered and will never be picked up. LFS, over and over.

Tonight, Della’s bubbling casserole is a cheesy mix of spinach and eggs and bits of ham. She slices and peppers tomatoes on a plate and sets the table with mismatched napkins, embroidered peacocks and lilies-of-the-valley. Faye and Della never sew for themselves. Some customers forget their orders.

Della at the window rises slowly and makes her way to the table. Faye says grace as always over the simple dinner, and Della doesn’t. After dinner they thread their needles, and lay each on the cleared table in rows of silky prisms. Just before dawn, Faye will be the one to make coffee, dig through the azaleas for the morning paper, and sweep the stoop, even though she, and not Della, is the pretty one.

Once the needle pierces, linen is disrupted forever. There can be no mistakes. Both women have the patterns in their fingers and that’s the magic of their handiwork, the reason customers all come with bare cloth and pay. Linen remembers too much handling, a pencil mark, a misplaced stitch. Faye and Della devote hours of careful fearlessness, the loop and tension of a thousand split-second decisions, holding their collective breaths snipping cutwork arcs without error.

They are artisans of the everyday. Handkerchiefs, no matter how finely hemmed, are made for tears and sneezes and wringing at funerals. Tablecloths catch spilled breakfast and napkins daub lipsticked mouths. Cuffs scratch against mahogany desks and soak in buckets of bluing. Della and Faye try not to think of it this way as the needles slide under and over and under a pansy’s delicate curve, balsa hoops holding the warp and weft taut. The intricacy of the needle holds them captive in the moment and they have unrelenting tunnel vision. Time suspends, spinning like a number three needle on a twisted thread.

Someone broke Della’s heart and scattered it across linen for forty years. If LFS married another, or died, or even ran away on one of the trains she watches from the window, it doesn’t really matter. LFS said no, leaving Della balancing precariously on the head of a pin and sitting at the window.

Della never cries because Faye knows exactly when to make tea or small gossip or to ask for something just out of reach. Faye has always known how to hold a butterfly on her finger.
Tonight Faye will go to the mirror, begin the meticulous art of tortoise comb and finger-wave clips. And Della at the window will watch as she always does, Faye’s ablutions reflecting in the glass.

(Another piece I’m playing with.)

Chesaleen (bless her heart)


The morning Chesaleen died she bought two silver bottles of black hair rinse, which is why when they found her late that night, straddle-slipped on the rain-wet cement steps, they assumed she bled the black blood of a terrible sin. Truthfully, her heart quit on the second step and there was no blood at all, black or otherwise, but that was neither here nor there. The sin was an old one and not a secret, and the sight was more interesting for the way she pointed up with one fat finger propped against the rusted stair rail, pointing in penitence or accusation and laying like a billowy squid in a puddle of her own ink.

Back before the town elders became Christians paying their wives back for assorted wrongs by going to church, they cooked corn whisky out behind Chesaleen’s barn. She was a sweet thing then, with dead parents and a little money and eyebrows arched up like a movie star. Chesalean knew how to play cards and drink one-handed corn. She had a thirsty wink for the men young and old, single and otherwise. Boys always began coon-hunting, but ended up midnight at Chesaleen’s where she was always wide-awake waiting with a cigarette clenched tight in her smile and one eye squinting for the smoke. She wasn’t even a Methodist.

On the way to church, Mama used to make me cover my eyes when we passed her house and Daddy would cough some. There she’d be, between my widening fingers rising out of her own weeds like a toss-headed witch. Chesaleen scared the hell out of me, just like she was supposed to.

“Good girls go to church,” Mama mumbled straight at my cupped hands, “Bad girls go to hell and burn forever til their blood runs black.” She’d look at Daddy and he’d start fiddling with the gas pedal and that was that.

Chesaleen just waived her housecoat a bit at us and we left her swallowed up in road dust.

There’s a story goes that once Chesaleen showed up uninvited to the Saturday quilting at the high school gym and brought a chocolate cream pie. She wore white rolled-up shorts and spiky shoes with her toes showing. She set that pie down on the table with her red fingertips, mustered up a big lipstick smile, and waited. Well, those good women never quit rocking the needles. They never did anything else either, and when Chesaleen left bawling Mrs. Humnoke went right over to the table, scooped up that pie, and threw it in the stove-fire.

“Smell that pie burn,” my Mama said through the quilt frame, straight down at me underneath it. Women and needles rocking in and out above my head and that sweet, burning chocolate.

Two weeks later Chesaleen showed up again, this time with a pretty lemon pie in her plain fingers and a buttoned-up cotton dress down to her knees. Still, the needles kept rocking and the women set their mouths hard against her. She just smiled pretty and spun around to the door. A few minutes later, it was Mrs. Brashear broke the quiet.

“I think she’s trying,” Mrs. Brashear was blonde and not a little pregnant and had soft spots now and again. She rolled out of her chair, waddled over to the table, and sliced herself a piece of that lemon pie before she screamed and fainted. Women leaping to catch the blonde bride failed before she hit the gym floor planks like a felled pine.

Well, that pie was full of maggots, crawling in all that lemon and meringue like seed pearls. I never told Mama that from under the quilt frame I could see Chesaleen wasn’t wearing any underwear. They were busy enough what with maggots and Mrs. Brashear half-dead from the fall.

When Freddy Brashear was born the next day he had a strawberry mark on his chin and everybody knew it was because his mama had eaten Chesaleen’s maggots.

(I’m not yet sure what to do with this piece. I play with it, find new directions, discard them – you know the drill. Chesaleen’s just a character I can’t leave alone. Maybe I’ll write a little bit more of her over Christmas break. Maybe.)