Tell me if this sounds familiar. I think artistic people have a portion of their brain that is always open. A portion that maybe non-artistic people don’t have. The way I describe it is that there’s this little corner of my head, way in the back, that is always thinking about the story I’m in the middle of writing. (Sometimes, unfortunately, it’s more than one story, which can make things very crowded in there.)
These days, it’s all about Northville Five & Dime. I spend a lot of time there. While I’m at work, taking care of things, meeting with people, writing emails, doing research, and “other duties as required,” there’s always a part of me that is in Northville, puzzling through the next piece of the story to be written and how I might fill in the white space between where I’m at and the end of the story.
When I’m with friends, there’s a little piece of me that’s back in Northville.
And, when I’m with my family, I can’t help it. It’s impossible to provide my undivided attention to them. For months now, I’ve spent a lot of time in Northville. At least in my head.
I’m sure I’ve blogged about this before, but the telling of this story is extremely challenging. I had lunch with Zoe today to talk about the novel she’s about to publish with my assistance. Eventually, we turned to Northville and I was trying to explain the difficulty to her. As I’ve said, I’m writing this story in first person, but from the perspective of three different characters. I switch back and forth between them with each chapter. What this means in the writing is that each time I start a chapter I have to take myself out of one character’s head, turn their camera off, and switch to another character and turn their camera on.
It means that I am constantly having to re-consider the story. And these are short chapters, typically only four to six pages. As a result, I don’t make much progress before it’s time for a switch. Each switch is like starting the story over again. Put differently, it’s like writing three different stories at the same time.
So, it’s challenging and is why it’s taking me so long to write the damn thing. A couple of nights ago, I wrote a couple hundred words to start the current chapter. I went to bed. I got up in the morning and thought about what I had written and realized it was crap. As I described it to Zoe today, what I had written was more like reporting than story-telling. I needed to re-consider the chapter and do a better job. Between then and today, I thought of a better way to start the chapter — one that would get me right into storytelling and hopefully lead to a better chapter. I waited until today to start writing it.
I knew what the first couple of paragraphs would be. I did not know what else would come out to carry me through the chapter. So, I’ve been pondering the chapter all day. Writing a few hundred words here, a few hundred there, and eventually getting to almost 1,400 words. It is posted below.
But, here’s where I get to express an annoyance. Tonight, I went out to dinner with my wife and youngest son. Towards the end of the meal, I started thinking about this chapter. It introduces a little girl into the story. A little girl who has a seemingly innocent conversation with Lily, one of the three main characters. The thing is that the conversation has to have some larger meaning in the context of the story and I didn’t know what that meaning was going to be. So, I was pondering it, mulling it over, considering what it might mean and I came up with something.
What this all means was that I was in Northville tonight while my family was wrapping up its dinner. I think you know how that feels and what it looks like to other people. Yes, my eyes had glazed over and I wasn’t quite hearing what they were talking about. I was staring off into space. My wife asked me what was wrong. I told her that I was in Northville. (Both she and the kid know about the story, so they understood the reference.)
And, then, the two of them started to mock me. It was good-natured, but still they were mocking me for saying such a silly thing. That I was in Northville.
We writers live in a different world. Some people accept and respect it. Others don’t. Tonight was one of those times when I felt like my family did neither.
Here is Chapter 26 of Northville Five & Dime. It is rough. I think this is a chapter that may very well change significantly, and possibly be deleted, before this story ever reaches its final state. One more thing about this story — I stole somebody for this chapter. I was talking to a co-worker a couple of months ago and learned that she had a little girl named Opal. I told her I was going to write a story with an Opal in it. I just love that name. As you’ll see, I found a place for her in Northville — a place that is truly taking over my life.
* * * * *
We were at the Baseball Hall of Fame. Just Dad and me. Mom and Sophie were back at home, where we had left them early in the morning. Sophie cried when we left, but he assured her, “Don’t worry, my lilliputian, I’ll take you in a few years and it’ll be just you and me. Sophie will have to stay home and scrub the floors.”
I huffed and puffed at the idea, knowing that there would be no floor scrubbing for Sophie while we were gone. She would have the run of home and Mom would let her, laughing and playing along. Besides, Sophie knew nothing of baseball. I, on the other hand had started that summer sitting with our dad when he watched Yankees games on television.
We arrived when the doors opened. First we ran through the place, he pointed things out to me, and then we strolled. We were there for hours, only taking a break for lunch, reading about the Black Sox and the Big Red Machine, home run hitters and the winningest pitchers in the game. Every personality and team in the game worth celebrating was there.
“My dad took me to one Yankees game when I was a kid. What a treat that was,” my dad sighed as we stood before an exhibit to Murderer’s Row. “Yeah, it was 1974 and the Yankees weren’t so good then, but still … it was the Yankees. I’ll never forget the green grass, the smell of peanuts, the cheers and boos.”
“Take me to a game, Dad,” I pleaded. That summer he had taken me to a couple of minor league games in Syracuse, a couple of hours from Northville. I couldn’t begin to imagine the scale and grandeur of a game at Yankee Stadium, with its pin stripes and traditions.
“We’ll get there, Sophie. Soon.”
We never did though. A few months later, we made our first trip to the city, with no time to fit in a game. He said, “Next year,” when I asked. And then everything changed and it felt like “next year” would never happen.
It’s all I could think of as Sophie spoke. My memory froze me, buried once again in guilt, like ocean waves rising up and covering me. My body filled up with a pain that I couldn’t feel. My sister thought of killing herself and there was nothing I could do about it.
I had memories of our parents that she didn’t have. I had more of them than she would ever experience. Hell, when I was eight Mom took me to get my ears pierced. Afterwards, we went out for lunch. “Just us ladies,” she said when we sat down and picked up the menus. We had ice cream and afterwards, she bought me my first pair of “big girl” earrings. Sophie still didn’t have her ears pierced.
Our parents were real, flesh and blood pieces of my past. The guilt consumed me again, after a week of seeing a light in Sophie I worried might not exist, a light that seemed to be blowing away the darkness, the light dimmed. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think. All I could see in my mind was a screaming neon sign that flashed on and off, over and over again. “IT’S NOT FAIR!!!” the sign said in bright multi-colored letters.
I ran from the room with Sophie’s “Lily!” following along as the door closed behind me.
“No,” I mumbled to myself as I stormed down the hallway, down two flights of stairs, and out of the hospital, into the warm brightness of the afternoon. The empty, antiseptic air of the hospital was replaced with sun heated air heavy with the scents of the outdoors. Trees and roses just starting to bloom mixed with the asphalt of the parking lot and whiffs of exhaust that eddied back and forth. At the bench I plopped down on, the scent of freshly mown grass overwhelmed it all.
For the next two hours I sat and watched the world go by. I wallowed in my memories and my pain. When an old couple tottered their way into the hospital, I wiped away the tears of knowing that my parents never had the opportunity to grow old together. I could picture them, grayed and wrinkled, holding each other up as they walked down a street. Or sitting comfortable in old chairs by the fireplace, a fire crackling and grandchildren at their feet. They would have none of it.
When entire families entered or exited, shuddered at what we had all missed out on. Even if a dad was yelling at one of the kids, or a mother was impatiently tugging a whiny toddler while she poked away at her cellphone, I marveled at the beauty of family and held myself tight to keep the shudders at bay.
Then I realized that even family wasn’t perfect. Pete, laying in the hospital bed two floors up, was a perfect example of that.
When a gaggle of teenage girls came out of the hospital, giggling and gossiping as they went, I ground my teeth at the frustration of Sophie having missed out on a normal childhood. And wiped away another tear. Was it my fault that she had gone so deeply into her shell? Could I have done something differently to get her out in the world, to make friends, and to be a normal kid, with or without a wheelchair?
I sat on the bench, my elbows on my knees my head in my hands. The sun beat down on the back of my neck. I was lost in my thoughts, letting my emotions take over and trying to figure out how Lily, Pete and I could ever live normal lives, whatever normal was.
I removed my hands from my face and looked up. Before me stood a little girl, probably no more than four or five years old. She wore a pink dress and had Little Pony sneakers. They were on the wrong feet. One sock was pulled up while the other sagged to the shoe top. She had wispy, fly-away hair, the color of cinnamon. She smiled at me and tilted her head to the side and asked me again, “What’s wrong, lady?”
Wiping my eyes, I smiled at her. “Nothing’s wrong.”
“Why you crying?”
“I’m not crying.” I snuffled and swiped my hand under my nose one last time. I smiled again. “See.”
“You were crying. I was watching.”
I looked around to see if I could find somebody who belonged to the little girl. Down the walkway where it fed into the parking lot, two men talked with each other, their backs turned to the girl and I. “What’s your name?”
“Where’s your mommy?”
“She’s in the hopsital.”
“Oh! I’m sorry.”
“Well, she must be sick if she’s in the hopsital.” I couldn’t help but pronounce it the same way and chuckle as I did so.
“She’s not sick,” Opal said, exasperated at having to explain what was obvious to her. “She’s going to have a baby. I’m going to have a brother.” A huge grin filled her face and she danced back and forth on her feet in excitement. “Phillip. That’s his name. Phillip James. I’m gonna call him PJ. Get it PJ for pajamas.” Opal held her hand to her mouth and giggled through her fingers as she twirled in a circle before stopping and facing me again. Her cheeks were turning read and her eyes sparkled.
“That’s great news, Opal. Where’s your daddy?”
“Over there.” She pointed at the two men. “With my uncle. They’re waiting.”
“Oh …” I didn’t know what else to say.
Opal took a step closer to me and dropped her voice to a whisper, her face suddenly wiped clean of its laughter. “Uncle Tommy is living with us now.” She glanced down at her father and uncle. “But it’s a secret. Mommy says he has problems, so we’re helping him out.”
“Hey, Opal, what are you doing, honey?” One of the men began to walk towards us. “You leave that lady alone.”