City of the Dead – Novel Excerpt

new-orleans-cemetary

I don’t really know if this will make it into the finished manuscript or not, but I do like it, and if it gets cut, may find its way into a short story or another novel someday; Octavia may be a larger, more interesting character than the current space for her allows. Who knows? For now, hers is the story-excerpt for the month. I hope you enjoy.

Every two or three months, Octavia would visit the cemetery. New Orleans St. Louis Cemetary 2, to be precise. There were three of them now, all within a few blocks of each other near the French Quarter. A mixture of city settlers, dignitaries, jazz musicians, a voodoo queen, and some just plain folks – generations of them – all sleeping side by side through eternity.

“The City of the Dead” they called it. Because of the high water table and occasional flooding, no one could be buried in the ground, so the practical alternative was  building family vaults above ground, varying in height and breadth and numbers, but all lined up with paths in between like a strange cityscape in miniature. Some were painted, usually in pastel colors; others were whitewashed and glowed in the moonlight; some had a short wrought-iron fence that ran around a large family plot, while others had a thin strip of grass; some had flowers or shrubs, either planted directly in the ground or in pots.

Octavia liked it here. Even though many warned her about coming, especially alone, she found solace in visiting her relatives and ancestors, tending the graves. Well, grave actually, since there was only one long rectangle of cement that held her lineage. It was longer than it was tall, which gave her a wide horizontal surface on which to place her offerings when she came. The only people she ever encountered were others who were doing as she was, respectful and understanding, a sort of unspoken kinship of grief, wonder and devotion.

The one exception to the rule of not coming here at night was on All Souls’ eve. Everyone came out on this night of the year when it was believed the veil between the worlds was thinnest; a time of remembrance, of celebration, of community. On that night – the first of November – the City of the Dead was very much alive with the living. The cemetery glowed in the dark from hundreds of votive candles  placed on the tombs, casting long, slanting shadows and illuminating the faces of those paying tribute and tending the graves. There were flowers and food for honoring and sustenance, shots of rum or rye or sazerac, and maybe a few cigarettes, depending on the predilections of those entombed there.

Octavia always started out by kneeling by the tomb of her family, pressing her hands against the cool surface of the whitewashed cement, and silently saying the old prayers and greetings to the dead in French Creole. Then she would lay out her offerings: No less than a dozen votive candles, evenly spaced around the edge of the box-like tomb. She worked her rosary and said a Hail Mary with each candle lit. Then she set the vase of flowers from her garden, the cosmos and dahlias and snapdragons that held on late – this, especially for her grandmother, who had always loved her garden. It was still warm enough this time of year that there was always ample in bloom.

Octavia took a flask from the canvas bag she’d packed and brought to this night, along with a small shot glass. She carefully poured a small measure of rye and set the glass at one end of the arrangement. For Uncle Philippe, who had always been fond of his after-dinner drink by the fire, this time of year.

She set out a bowl of red beans and rice, a small plate of sliced sausages and tomatoes. A small bowl of late season plums and one with tangerines, a special favorite of her great-aunt Tilly, who had died just this last year at age ninety-eight. It was thought that the spirits on this night were hungry for some of their earthly favorites and it gave Octavia pleasure to be able to provide for them these small tokens of the lives they had enjoyed here on earth.

Octavia reached into the bag and brought out photographs of some of those buried here, placing them around on the tomb, securing them with the votive glasses, protecting them from the breeze that was starting to stir.

She placed several sprigs of rosemary from her garden in the middle of the tomb’s surface. For remembrance. Octavia smiled and stood up, looking at the finished makeshift altar. For her it glowed and hummed with the swirling memories of her childhood and of stories about her relatives that had come and gone before she was born. She felt a part of a stream of life that was as tangible as the flowing of the nearby Mississippi river. She crossed herself instinctively, with reverence.

She turned and looked at the rest of the cemetery. It had come alive with the twinkling of votive-candle lights and the movement of people and the soft cadence of voices that carried on the breeze; combinations of French, English, African and Arcadian dialects. There were traces of song and soft laughter. It reminded Octavia of Christmas. The chill of the tombs, the evening air, balanced with the warmth of the candle light, the warmth of the voices as people prayed out loud and told family stories to the children they brought with them. Octavia hoped that someday she would have a son or daughter that she could bring here, to teach the prayers and the predilections of their ancestors, to pass on the lineage and responsibility of honoring and celebrating those no longer present.

It never felt morbid to Octavia, though both her parents were still alive, and she wondered if it might be different for her, years from now. But she felt that even then, they would be somehow at home, protected and at peace here. She would help see to it, she thought to herself.

A New Year, a New Excerpt

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Happy New Year! No resolutions here, but a Word For the Year (“Imagine”) and the continuation of my intention to post an excerpt of the novel-in-progress on the first of each month.

If you haven’t seen the others I posted, you can find them here, here, here , here and here. (Not in any particular order).

This one is from early-on in the book; a glimpse into the day-to-day life and the seeds of disruption for the protagonist…a little long, but I hope you like it.

* * * 

Bea decided to not eat at her desk for a change, and took the empty chair across from Dennis Murphy, the only copy editor who had worked here longer than she had, and one of her favorite co-workers, next to Felicia.

“Hey Murphy,” she said, “Care for some company?”

“Please, sit.” He gestured to the chair across from him. She set down her plate and pulled back the chair.

“Damn that smells good Bea, what is it?” 
“Just some leftovers.”

“Seriously? Your leftovers look like a page from a magazine. Come on, what is it?”

“Slow-braised pork with red wine reduction, polenta with parmesan, and a root vegetable ragout.”

Murphy shakes his head. “How do you do all that after working here all day?”

“Practice, and that marvelous invention, the slow-cooker. It’s also what I do instead of watching television.”

“Humph. You do so watch TV. Peter told me you watch the Cooking Channel like it was the only station on the air,” He smiled and winked at her. “Doesn’t that count?”

Bea laughed. “Busted! Yes, I suppose that counts. I was serious about the slow-cooker, though. You and Meg should get one, it really does make all the difference.” She wanted to chide him for his daily sandwiches, but didn’t know if they were personal favorites, if it would come across as condescending instead of kidding. She liked Murphy and didn’t want to offend him, or make herself look like a pompous bitch. So instead she changed the subject, and they talked about the current projects they were working on (he was finishing the final mark ups on the latest natural history book about the Galapagos Islands. She had just started working on a memoir of a woman who had grown up in a traveling circus in Europe in the 1940s); the movies they last saw; the latest adventures of Murphy’s now four-year-old son, Gabriel.

“Murphy, what would you do if you didn’t work here?”

“Work somewhere else, of course, why? You know something I don’t?” He winked at her.

“No!” Bea laughed. “I was just thinking about what I would do if I weren’t working here. Don’t you ever at least think about it?”

Murphy took another bite of his cheese and tomato sandwich, chewed for a moment and swallowed. “I used to think about it, but I haven’t for a long time. Once Gabriel came along I stopped thinking about changing anything other than diapers. But don’t get me wrong, I lucked out – this is the best copy-editing gig I have ever had, and it beats the hell out of freelancing. Seriously, I am not cut out for the self-employed life. But, why do you ask?” He leans forward, conspiratorially. “You casting around for something new?”

“No, well, I don’t know. I have been feeling restless or something lately.” She took a bite of food as she considered. “So, did you always want to be a copy editor?”

Murphy laughs. “Oh hell no! I graduated from college with a degree in History, and was all set to become a professor and submerge myself in the great cocoon of academia for the rest of my life. But then Iraq happened, and I enlisted. My dad had been a Colonel, and it was always expected that if the opportunity came up and Uncle Sam said Jump, the Colonel’s two sons would immediately ask How High?” Murphy smiled. “And when I got back – thankfully in one piece – I really wasn’t sure what to do with myself. While I was trying to figure it out I helped my kid brother by editing his thesis; next thing I knew I was being hired by a dozen grad students to look over their papers, and all of a sudden I am using my English minor more than my History major. But turned out I really liked it. The rest, as they say, is history – sorry, I couldn’t resist,” he said, smiling at Bea’s grimace. “And now here I am – about to be promoted to Assistant Editor.” He smiled at Bea’s surprised expression.

“Really? That’s great news, Murphy! Congratulations! When did that happen?”

“This morning,” Murphy nodded. “Thanks, I’m pretty stoked about it, and the extra money will come in handy. But what about you? What was the thing you thought you wanted to do before you ended up here?”

Bea didn’t hesitate. “Cook,” she said, taking a bite of meat.

“Really? Well I’m not surprised, but where, like at a restaurant?”

“No, not interested in restaurant work. I did a brief stint at culinary school after college – English major, by the way, so yes I am using my liberal arts degree,” Bea laughs. “But I had to drop out before the program ended to take care of my mom after she had a stroke, and I never got around to going back. But I hadn’t really decided where I might end up. I doubted I had the stamina or interest in being a line cook, for one thing. Something more backstage like pastry chef, maybe. Mostly I think I wanted something potentially more varied, like catering or being a private chef of some sort. But I never went far enough to find out.” Murphy accepted Bea’s offer of a bite of food. “Oh damn, that’s really good.” He chewed and swallowed. “So, couldn’t you pick up where you left off?” Bea paused before replying. The lunch room was fairly small, and by now they were surrounded with the buzz of conversation and the clinking of silverware on dishes. The atmosphere was convivial and relaxed, and Bea tried to imagine what it would be like, cooking a meal for a roomful of people like this. “I don’t know,” she said slowly. “I don’t want to say ‘I’m too old,’ but it feels a little bit like that. For one thing I have been here long enough that it would likely be a gruesome cut in pay to cook for a living, and I don’t know if I have the physical stamina to cook full-time. Does that sound weird, or like I’m making excuses?”

“No, especially not with restaurant work – Meg’s younger brother has worked as a line cook for the past couple years, and it sounds pretty grueling – but catering or freelance private chef would be different, wouldn’t it?” Murphy pressed.

Bea uncrossed and recrossed her legs, ran a hand through her hair. “Maybe. Probably. I don’t know. That all feels so long ago, I don’t know if I could switch careers like that now. It feels a little overwhelming.” She looked down at her plate and focused her attention on eating.

Murphy, aware that Bea was suddenly uncomfortable, changed the subject. “So how did you end up here?”

Bea looked visibly relieved, Murphy noticed, like she had stepped back onto solid ground.

“After mom died I didn’t really know what to do with myself,” she explained. “There was all the paperwork and legal stuff to do, and mom had left me a little money so I didn’t have to scramble for work right away. While I was in college I had, like you, done some work editing graduate theses – except not in the Art History department because mom taught there, and they figured there might be some conflict of interest,” Bea motioned with her hand to wave that idea away. “I got in touch with some of mom’s colleagues and they helped get the word out for me to their students; a couple of professors who were working on papers for publication hired me to edit for them, too. That was really when I realized I liked doing it. There is something tidy and orderly about it that appeals to me. Couldn’t ever see myself writing,” Bea laughed. “I actually had applied for a job with a small press in Minneapolis at one point, but then Peter got the job here with the Marine Conservation Coalition. One of the professors I had worked for suggested I hit up publishing houses here too, offered to write me a reference. And yes, as they say, the rest is history.” Bea looked at her watch. “Okay, back to the circus.” She smiled at Murphy. “Thanks for the company. Say hi to Meg for me.”

“Will do. Say hi to Peter. And I’ll talk with Meg about a slow cooker.” He smiled as he got up from the table with his now empty paper bag and walked toward the door, stopping to talk with a man at a nearby table. Bea heard the sound of his laughter over her shoulder as she left the break room.

Bea walked slowly back to her office, her steps muffled by the dark green carpet. The hallway was lined with framed book covers, but Bea had long since quit noticing them as anything more than a blur of color and text that could in truth have been in any language. At the moment, she was thinking about her lunch conversation. Why hadn’t she gone back to culinary school? She’d had money enough, and even a bit of time; though maybe not an entire year and a half, which she figured would have been how much was left, what with time as an extern somewhere. No, she wouldn’t have been able to afford both the tuition and the living expenses for that long. Or, was that just what she told herself at the time, and so many times that she came to believe it?

As she rounded the corner to the stairwell to go up a floor to her office, memories bubbled up: Big, open, spotless and brightly lit commercial kitchens, equally bright with white walls and miles of stainless steel in the form of tables, sinks, shelves and racks; bright with the while chef coats and toques on all the eager students, all carrying their rolled bundles of knives, the leather new and unworn by years of use, all with pens and thermometers in their allotted slots on the arm of their white chef’s jackets. Bea still had hers, folded up in the bottom of a dresser drawer. Bea had been one of the older students in her class, even then. Was that it? Was she afraid of holding down the far end of the age bell curve and being one of if not the oldest student there if she went back? Well, she certainly would be now, wouldn’t she? And so what? If she wasn’t interested in restaurant work, she wouldn’t have to fear competition with the younger, more energetically driven students. But wasn’t that what the program was mostly gearing their students for, except those who were on the front of the house “hospitality” track, destined to be restaurant managers and owners? Bea honestly didn’t know. Hadn’t gotten that far in the program. Hadn’t asked.

Then a friend introduced her to Peter, and she got the copy editing jobs, and time went on….culinary school became a distant memory, almost like another life. She had continued to cook and to learn on her own, and that had seemed to be enough. Wasn’t it?

Wasn’t it?

* * *

 

I just finished an amazing, invigorating and incredibly valuable eight-month writing mentorship program with Jeffrey Davis and Tracking Wonder that was truly for me the right thing at the right time – I am well on my way to having a finished first draft!

(In three days’ time – January 4th – Jeffrey is offering an introductory FREE two-hour webinar that will be chock full of great information and enthusiasm about crafting your year ahead, and will be an introduction to the man I have been so fortunate to study with off and on for the last two years.

If this has you at all curious, I think it will be a good use of your time, check it out and register here.)

Latest Excerpt from “One Dish at a Time: A Story of Family, Forgiveness, and Finding One’s Place at the Table”

Reserved II

     In the spirit of staying true to my intention to regularly post excerpts from the novel-in-progress, here is this month’s offering. I hope you are intrigued.

Bea brought the pale green towel down from drying her face and paused, considering her reflection in the mirror; thinking how odd it was that no one ever gets to see their own face, but others could view it, could stare at it as long as they liked, taking that fact for granted.

Your only view was from inside it. For the exterior, one was limited to photographs and this backward mirror image. How could it be? Nothing closer to you than your own skin, but never getting to actually see your own face, not ever. You could look down at your hands, your feet, your knobby knees, and there they were, live and in real-time. But not your face.

How much was the reflection in the mirror like a mask you wore?  And if so, where was the real you and who really gets to see it?

Bea frowned and her reflection frowned back. “Where did all that come from?” She wondered. “Middle of the night musings agitated by spicy food too soon before bedtime – philosophy driven by a slight case of heartburn?” Probably it came from all her recent thinking about the nature of Truth, about some of the people in her life and who the hell were they, really?  A mother, dead all these years, who had held a wound and secret alone and close in her heart nearly all the way to her grave, and not shared with Bea; a sister who she had thought was a whole-sister but turns out was only a half-sister (and is that a matter of blood and DNA, anyway, determining who gets to be “whole” and who gets to be “half?”); a father who had been absent most of her life and was now dropping back inside the frame of the picture – but only briefly – as it turns out, just as a cameo appearance before moving back into the turnstile out of her life. Out of life itself, in fact.  Bea felt sure she knew Peter well, but she felt the queasy wavering of doubt. What did she know to be true, after all, even about her husband? And who was she, for that matter? Could she trust a face that she never really got to see with her own eyes?  Bea closed her eyes and shook her head slightly, trying to stop this Möbius strip of thought, but without much success.

People identify who they are, their place in the family, by who they look like, right? Bea contemplated who was present in her features: She peered intently, turning her face slightly left, and then right (or right and then left, depending on how you wanted to look at it). Her thick chestnut hair was definitely her mother’s; likewise the pale color and somewhat dry texture of her skin. Her height and her general build – tall, slender except for a tendency toward heaviness in the hips if left to their own devices – were also her mother’s. Her blue-gray eyes and slightly too-large nose came from her father (though only known through photographs, Bea made a point to note). She shared her maternal grandmother’s name – but also her hands, Bea suddenly realized. They were not her mother’s hands; they had skipped a generation and became hers instead. She held up her hands in the mirror, palms facing her, and gazed at them through the distance of the mirror to make sure. Yes, there it was – she hadn’t ever quite seen it before – how had she missed it? Fingers long, slender but strong. Hands slightly larger than average. Not yet as wrinkled as she remembered her grandmother’s, but hers unmistakably. A duplicate of the hands Bea had grown up watching kneading bread, stirring sauces, tying roasts, peeling potatoes. Bea was suddenly washed over with happiness. Giddy almost, like she had just been given a gift. She had loved watching her grandmother’s hands, and it felt like through them a part of her was still alive in Bea.

Could knowledge be transmitted and carried forward in such a way? If so, what was Bea’s responsibility to her grandmother, if anything? Had her grandmother entrusted her with those indispensable tools for cooking? Was she obliged to use the gift, fully and completely, to the best of her ability?

Her grandmother had smiled at Bea when she’d heard about Bea’s wanting to go to culinary school – something Bea had not yet told anyone else – the summer between high school and college, while they were sitting together on the cool, shady porch, shelling peas into matching bright yellow bowls (had Bea really held that dream for so long?). It was one of the last times she had seen her grandmother, whose eyesight was failing gradually and the rest of her fading away more quickly. She had just celebrated her 90th birthday, and it was uncertain whether or not she would see ninety-one (she fooled them all and lived another three and a half years, dying peacefully one windy autumn afternoon in her sleep).

Bea remembered those last few visits vividly, all the more so for knowing they were numbered: The smells of spring lilacs and old age; chicken soup and eucalyptus ointment. Nearer the end, Bea trying to fill the empty, unknown silent spaces with talk – about college, trips to the lake, things she had been cooking –  almost desperately trying to bring the world to her grandmother, who was by then steadily withdrawing from it. Her hands, that Bea remembered still so clearly as active and precise in their movements, now lying still on the soft blue cotton blanket.

Amuse Bouche

 

Tapas

In keeping with my intention to share the writerly process and occasionally post an excerpt from the novel-in-process, still tentatively titled One Dish at a Time: a Story of Family, Forgiveness, and Finding One’s Place at the Table, I decided it was time to post another one. (The first two are here and here.)

The question of what to choose was answered for me when recently assigned by Jeffrey Davis to share the first five hundred words of our book with the other participants in his eight month long author’s mentorship program.

This was the first declaration of the beginning of the actual container that will hold this story, and was the first step in being able to start assembling the many pieces and scenes and conversations – both past and present – into what I hope will eventually be a coherent and captivating whole.

So in the spirit of writerly courage, here you have the first draft of the first five hundred words:

 

 

Amuse-bouche

 

 

Amuse-bouche: noun \ˈä-ˌmüz-ˈbüsh, from the French meaning “entertaining the mouth.” A single-bite appetizer or hors d’oeuvre that sets the tone or theme for the meal that will follow.

 

 

Bea’s grandmother made bread every Wednesday. After school, when she and Alice walked – or more typically ran, bursting through the kitchen door with the slap of the screen door behind them – into the house, it was to be enveloped by the heady aromas of baking and heat. Bea would sit on a tall stool by the massive butcher block, watching the choreography of her grandmother’s hands and the moving ball of dough. “You just get a feel for it in time,” she’d say.

 

* * *

 

Every time Tyler smelled freshly baked croissants he thought about Octavia.

As the years went by, he got to know the shape and texture of his grief in such a way that he could almost feel it, pliable and soft, but ever-present with a tenacious solidity.

 

* * *

 

Alice breathed deeply and caught a whiff of the Plumaria blossoms near the steps – that faintly spicy, faintly sweet combination that brought her comfort. The scent that welcomed her home after a long day or occasional week or more away for a photo shoot. It was the scent she had first encountered when she stepped off the plane at the Honolulu airport; the woman walking ahead of her was greeted by a group of friends, one of whom placed a lei of creamy white flowers around their returning friend’s neck. When she later saw the Plumaria tree growing next to the porch of a cottage she was looking to rent, she knew she had found her new home.

 

* * *

 

Michael eased himself down onto the step of his airstream as the sun was just beginning to dip down and color the western horizon of the far hills. He groaned slightly and then coughed. It had been a long day of pulling a stubborn engine out of a Studebaker, and he wasn’t as young as he used to be. He coughed again, ran a hand through his graying hair. He took a long drink from the cold beer and sighed with satisfaction. He never got tired of this view, of so much sky that held so many stars to look at in the middle of the night when he couldn’t sleep. He was glad he found this place on the periphery of town and beyond the reach of the lights that obscured the stars.

He coughed again.

 

* * *

 

Bea sits at table on the deck, overlooking the greenway and beyond it the river, with stacks of recipe books and her laptop and an indulgent mid-afternoon glass of wine. She picks up a fawn-colored file folder with long-ago notes and scribbling on food-stained pages; the remnants of her months in culinary school. She slowly turns over page after page, looking for a clue, an idea, an inspiration from these ghosts from her past.

     Goddamn it, she thinks. I need a plan.

 

What Do You Read and Why?

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What do you read and why?

I posted that question on my Facebook page recently. A similar question had been posed to me by Jeffrey Davis during one of the weeks of ArtMark , in response to my frustration at trying to articulate what “elixir” I have to offer people as a writer. Offering-articulation seemed to me to be more obvious and easy to determine for those providing a service, like creativity and life coaches, workshop facilitators, even writers of trade nonfiction that give specific answers and solutions to many of life’s questions and problems. I mean, I could “get” what needs I might serve in writing personalized ceremonies or conducting writing workshops. But as a fiction writer? That’s just writing stories, not answering a need (except my own need to write), right?

Wrong. (Fortunately)

Jeffrey responded with a simple, palm-slap-to-forehead question that nearly made me laugh out loud it was so obvious (but so often that’s how it works, me making something more complicated than it needs to be):

“Why do you read fiction?”

Oh, for what a myriad of reasons do I read fiction!…I love language, a good story, the imagery and emotions that can be evoked by the arranging of words. Twenty-six letters in an infinite number of combinations that can at any given time make one laugh, cry, feel anger, humility, awe, wonder, connection.

I like stories that transport me out of my day-to-day life into the lives of others, not as a voyeur, but as a witness; alternately, I like stories that hold up a mirror to my own life and life’s questions with characters who feel to me like real people; people I might like to know and spend time witha, who deal with some of the same struggles that I have known. I learn more about myself as I watch them navigate their lives, or allow me, gratefully, to simply say, yeah, me too….

And it’s not just about fiction, really: I look for similar things in every genre I read. With non-fiction, I am often looking to learn something new or understand something that has otherwise eluded me. Sometimes I simply want to be inspired when the world seems too heavy and burdened beyond repair.

When I posted this question on Facebook I received similar answers – many of them so eloquent and heartfelt, I was blown away. There is a whole legion of readers out there! And the responses were not only about fiction, but also about memoir and creative non-fiction. The common thread? The telling of a good story with  supreme expressiveness of language; something that could reach off the page and touch the reader at his or her core.

That’s why I read.

That’s why I write.

Maybe there are readers who will want to read what I have written, who will hopefully be touched across the markings on the page.

Okay. I get it now.

And you? What do you read and why? 

I would love to know.