Monday, March 31, 2008


Another excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Ginny Bates. If you are already a familiar reader, begin below. The action in the story resumes immediately after my post yesterday. If you need background, check the links in the sidebar on the right, fifth item down, to get caught up.

For dinner, Gillam got ambitious with two leek pot pies, one with chicken and one with salmon. He talked Myra through the process of making a roux for the sauce, and after each step, her muscle memory lead the way into actual conscious recollection. As she was stirring the cream sauce, she lifted the wooden spoon for a moment to talk with Gillam and he said "Hey, watch it, you're flicking that stuff at me!" She looked at her hand which held the spoon and it was trembling in a decided manner.

Ginny, making salad at the breakfast bar, said "What's wrong, honey? Are you nervous?"

"No" said Myra. She tried to stop the jerk, and the only way she could was to begin stirring again, or rest her hand on a flat surface.

"Are you chilled?" continued Ginny, coming into the kitchen and feeling Myra's forehead. Allie and Edwina appeared from the living room.

"No. I don't know why this is happening. It doesn't hurt, and it stops when I do something" said Myra. Ginny went directly to the phone and called Dr. Desai. Her message was relayed on, and ten minutes later Dr. Desai returned her call. By that time, Myra was rolling out puff pastry with Gillam. She took the phone and talked with Dr. Desai, then handed the receiver back to Ginny. After Ginny hung up, she reported "She thinks it's something called a benign essential tremor. Lots of folks get them, for one reason or another. It's not a neurological disease, and she says to ask Dr. Reading about it but not to worry, not to go to the ER or anything."

"Hell in a handbasket" muttered Myra, turning the dough, which sent Gillam into gales of laughter. Ginny kept answering the phone, talking with Carly and Patty, her father, and other concerned friends, until dinner was ready.

Once again, everyone raved about Gillam's cooking. He was completely pleased with himself, saying it was fun. He added "You know, Mom told me once that there are some cells in your body which live for seven years before needing to be replaced. That means the meals you've had for the past seven years are still present in who you are right now. I get off on that idea, on making something I know will be carried around in the bodies of people I love even when I'm not with them."

"You are just like your mother" said Ginny, her eyes shining.

At 8:00, Myra began fading. Ginny said they needed to go to bed, both of them, but to definitely bring Chris and Sima by, Myra wanted to see them no matter what, it was more important than uninterrupted sleep. Beebo, who had reclaimed Myra's lap, got up when they did and began making passes in front of the bedroom door. Ginny said to him "No way, mister, I'm wise to your tricks -- you sleep with Gillam, remember?"

Allie and Edwina headed for the airport. Margie and Gillam decided to wait up in the living room. "Can we watch TV? I mean, once your door is shut?" asked Margie. Ginny paused on the way into the bedroom, as Myra went into the bathroom, and she said "Yeah, go for it." She didn't see Beebo rocket past her ankles and scurry under the bed. Once he could tell they were both asleep, he crept out from his hiding spot and curled into Myra's side.

Myra woke up when Beebo scrambled under the bed as Chris approached. "Hey, you, are you sure it's okay to wake you up?" Chris whispered.

"Come here" answered Myra sleepily, pulled Chris down beside her. "Lie next to me." Next to her, Ginny stood and insisted Sima get between her and Myra.

Myra buried her face on Chris's shoulder and said "You smell like you. Thank god you're back."

"I'm so sorry I wasn't here, Myra -- "

"Why does everybody keep telling me they're sorry?" said Myra. "Nobody did anything wrong."

"Except for a couple of doctors" said Ginny grimly.

Chris argued "But she had a clear sign, and I missed it. It wasn't just about her uterus, it was the air mixture of a carburetor."

"Wow" said Myra. "We all missed it, Chris. Damn."

Myra turned so she could kiss Sima and look at her to ask "How are you doing, my poor Sima?" They talked and drank in each other's presence for half an hour. Finally Sima said "We need to get home, and let you go back to sleep."

Ginny said "I know you must want to be in your own place. But you're invited back here any time -- dinner tomorrow, if you want, or any other night. As soon as you can."

"Tomorrow" promised Chris.

"Will you ask Margie to set the alarm after you all leave?" asked Ginny. Chris took note of the fact that Margie was now trusted with the security code. But both teenagers looked markedly older than when she'd last seen them less than a week ago.

The following morning, Myra got up and had oatmeal with her children. Margie reminded her twice to do her exercises, and Gillam said there was fresh shrimp in the fridge for dinner, don't defrost anything. Once they were gone, Ginny said "It's actually sunny outside. Shall we pull the yoga mat to the deck and do our routine out there?"

Narnia joined them, snuffling around the edges of the yard. Myra worked up a satisfying-feeling sweat. She lay on the mat afterward and watched Ginny work in her neglected garden. Eventually, the sweat turned to a slight chill and she sat up, saying "I sure wish I could hot tub yet. I'm going to shower."

"I'll go with you" offered Ginny instantly.

"No, I'm all right. I'll come get you when I'm done."

They had an early lunch of steamed veggies and new potatoes with a soft French farm cheese that Myra said was almost normal-tasting. At 11:00, Nancy arrived. She set several items on the table, bottles and packets of herbs, and asked Ginny to bring all the vitamins and supplements they had in the house for review. One by one, Nancy had Myra hold an item in one hand while Nancy did muscle testing. When she was done, there was a group of bottles which Nancy said Myra should keep taking, and she recommended dosages which Ginny wrote down.

Nancy then said she had talked with friends who were also practitioners, and they all agreed the damage to Myra's neural pathways was in the form of a chemical overlay which, when removed, would find the pathway intact underneath. Two strong recommendations for how to assist her in this were for her to start seeing an acupuncturist twice a week, and also to "re-trace" her memories by telling stories, looking at photos, visiting locations, smelling familiar odors -- anything to "jog" her memory.

"What about my writing?" said Myra. "I can't even sign my name."

"Read your own work" said Nancy. "I mean, begin with someone reading it aloud to you. Once retention becomes more sustained for you, read it yourself. As for the handwriting, let's work on that right now."

An hour later, Myra was exhausted and Nancy looked uncharacteristically fatigued as well. "I've never had to do this kind of work" Nancy said. "But -- take that pencil and see what you can manage."

Myra left out the R the first time and her script was large, wobbly, but it was a signature of sorts. Ginny choked back a sob. Nancy said "Myra, why don't you go rest? I need to work with Ginny a while." Myra gave them both kisses and went into the bedroom, closing the door and dropping off into a nap without Ginny there to hold her. Some time later, Ginny slid in behind her and they slept together until the children came home. When Myra showed them her paper with a signature on it, they pounded on her back in glee.

As Gillam was starting to make shrimp fried rice, the phone rang and Ginny answered. It was Dr. Reading. Ginny took notes and when she got off, she said to her family's expectant faces "There's nothing definitively wrong on the CT scan. There's an area of what she called white matter changes, but it's not a blood clot or like a tumor, not worrisome enough to biopsy, for instance. She said the activity was 'muted' but not indicative of severe trauma. I told her about Nancy's suggestions, and she was okay with all of it. Especially the acupuncture. She also said the tremor was not uncommon after something like this, and unless it progressed or interfered with her life in a major way, any treatment for it could be worse than the tremor itself. She said a glass of wine might make her hands steadier, but I told her Myra doesn't drink and she laughed, saying it was not a good enough excuse to start. She doesn't need to see you again unless something changes or you want further consultation."

Myra held out her hand and looked at the flutter of her fingers. "I guess I'm officially over the hill now. Thank god I'm not a painter."

"You know, Eli Clare has written poems about his tremor, which is much more pronounced because of his CP, and how it has become part of loveplay between him and his lover" said Ginny.

"I do NOT want to hear about that" said Margie emphatically. Myra grinned and said "Fair enough."

After Allie, Edwina, Chris and Sima arrived, dinner turned into a party with almost everything sounding funny, mostly because they were all together again, alive and more or less intact. Dessert was stewed cherries over sugar-free frozen yogurt. When the table started to be cleared, Chris said to Myra "Let's go see if you can type. That's not the same as writing by hand."

Myra froze and said "I don't know..."

"Let's find out. I'll be with you, wouldn't you rather know?" Chris took her arm and guided her gently toward the study. Ginny set down her sponge and started after them, but Allie said "Wait. Let Chris do this."

Chris set her wide ass on Myra's desk and dangled her feet as Myra sat down in front of her computer and turned it on. "Do you remember your password?" asked Chris amiably.

"No -- wait, yes I do" said Myra. She typed it in and, with fumbling fingers, got a Word document open.

"Okay, there's the blank page. See what comes up" said Chris. Myra noticed the tremor was back as she held her fingers expectantly over the keys. She rested her wrists on the edge of the desk and the tremor disappeared. She looked at the letters on the keys, and closed her eyes for a few seconds. When she opened them again, she began typing, one click, a pause, another click. Her former speed was a dream, but she got into a jerky plod.

After four lines, she stopped. "Dried up" she said.

"Well, you did something, that's all that matters" said Chris jubilantly. "Hit print. And you can either save or not save, up to you."

As the printer whirred, Myra closed Word without saving.

"You want to share, or keep it for yourself?" asked Chris.

Myra picked up the page and walked into the living room, where Ginny's face was the only thing in Myra's view.

"I wrote something" she said. "It's four lines. It's not a poem, I don't know what it is."

"It's writing" said Chris, coming up behind her. "You think you can read it out loud, or should one of us?"

Myra handed her the page, and Chris read:

I can hear the clock ticking but the arms don't move
Nobody ever found Oates' body
Ishi was his people's word for man, but he was not
allowed to tell them his real name before he died

Ginny sucked in her breath and burst into shrieking wails. Edwina, who was beside her, pulled her into her arms and Myra stared at them. Chris hooked her arm around Myra's neck and said "This is good, she needed to let that boiler blow."

But Myra grew increasingly distressed at the grief and terror Ginny was demonstrating she'd been living through. Allie got up to stand on the other side of Myra and said "Remember when Margie was born, and Ginny freaked out about how helpless she was, both of them were? It was up to you to keep them fed and safe and okay. And that went on for a long time. Well, now Ginny's paying you back for that, for how you kept this family strong after both kids were born. You need to let her be the rock. And this is her taking care of herself, letting us take care of her. We'll keep you all going, just like we did then."

Margie and Gillam's eyes were huge. Myra said "Okay" and let her friends anchor her until Ginny was able to talk again. After blowing her nose, Ginny grinned at Myra blearily and said "It's not a poem, but it's pure Myra. You still got it, babe." Myra went to sit next to her. Chris pinned the paper to the fridge with magnets.

The next evening, after homework was finished and dinner eaten, Gillam sat beside Myra on her daybed, his long legs now reaching almost to the floor as he leaned against the Gee's Bend quilt. Myra's head was next to his, her eyes on the book in his hands. His voice carried into the kitchen as Ginny cleared up:

"All I could see from where I stood / Was three long mountains and a wood" he began.

His next selection was one of Myra's most famous poems, and probably her favorite, Ginny thought. He read four more, all of them Myra's, and stayed on the daybed while Myra went to her computer and wrote whatever lines came to her. This was the commencement of what Ginny called "priming the pump" sessions. Myra was never happy with what she produced, but that was often true of her work. She said good writing happened in rewrite. And that might be months down the road.

Myra continued her new schedule of going to sleep early and getting up when Ginny did. She was enjoying having breakfast on weekdays with her children. On Wednesday, she and Ginny left when the kids did, arriving at Dr. Desai's office as it opened. Dr. Desai began with the pathology results from Myra's surgery, which showed no sign of cancer in any of the biopsies outside her uterus, no invasion of her uterine lining by the cancer, and no metastases to her ovaries or tubes. She said Myra would need periodic check-ups with scans and blood tests, but her prognosis was they'd caught the cancer in time. Ginny kept saying "Oh thank god, thank god" while Myra grinned at her. While they sat there, Ginny pulled out her cell and sent a text message to all their friends and family with the news, before they proceeded with the rest of the visit.

Myra was beginning to complain about her staples itching, which Dr. Desai said was a good sign. The removal was painless. Much more dramatic were the still vivid bruises left by the twice-a-day abdominal injections of Lovenox Myra had been given while in the hospital.

Dr. Desai proclaimed her in excellent physical recovery, and went over the ambiguous results of the CT with them, adding nothing to what Dr. Reading had said. When Ginny asked her about the anoxia incident during surgery and what the anesthesiologist had had to say, Dr. Desai pulled off her glasses and became somber.

"I...I've had to consult my attorney about this. Because the risk for litigation exists, I've been told I cannot discuss this with you."

"We're not planning to sue you" said Ginny, shocked.

"Nevertheless, unless you want to sign a waiver stating you will never engage in a lawsuit against me, I'm bound by my insurance regulations to not discuss the issue" said Dr. Desai, clearly reciting from memory. She hesitated, then said "It's not what I want. I think it's a stupid system, and only encourages legal action because people quite naturally want answers." She stopped herself. After a minute, while Ginny and Myra both stared at her, she said softly "I hope I don't lose you as patients. You both mean a great deal to me."

Myra said "I know you had nothing to do with what occurred. I know it down to my bones." Dr. Desai showed visible gratitude.

"But we may have to take action, you're right" said Ginny. "I don't know what kind yet -- it depends on how things turn out. If Myra -- if we lose Myra's income for the rest of her life, we're going to seek compensation for that. And, there's the issue of responsibility. If this was just a glitch, then, well, we don't believe in punishment. But I have to say, I'm beginning to wonder if there was a cover-up. Which might mean more than just a glitch." Dr. Desai didn't say anything. Ginny sighed and said "I guess we're going to have to talk with our attorney, then."

"I understand" said Dr. Desai.

"Well, this just sucks" said Myra. Dr. Desai reached over and squeezed her hand, saying "I agree." As they were standing to leave, she said "If it makes a difference...I'll never use that man as an anesthesiologist again. Just between you and me."

Ginny said softly "Thank you for that. It helps."

In the car, Ginny said "We were going to swing by Pike, are you still up for that?"

"Yeah. But remind me not to lift anything, don't want my innards suddenly tumbling out onto my feet." Myra laughed, but Ginny did not.

They made it through the vegetable stalls and fish market before Myra said "I'm getting -- fuzzy. I need a break."

"Back to the car?"

"No, I want to see the brass pig." They walked out the side to the life-size statue of a happy-looking pig in gleaming brass. Myra put her hand on its head and closed her eyes, grinning.

"Remember when the kids were itty-bitty and we'd have to come here first?" she said. They had a tradition that touching the pig meant good luck that day, that a nice surprise would happen before bedtime if you rubbed the pig's head. And it had never failed, of course. Ginny reached over and got her porcine luck for the day as well.

"Let's find a bench" said Myra. Ginny sat smack against Myra, momentarily remembering that potluck long ago when they had pressed together for warmth. If she'd had any idea how well she was going to come to know this woman's body...

Myra said "Something's wrong, Ginny." Ginny was jolted from reminiscence and turned to Myra in fear. "Something else, you mean?"

"No. Same thing. But it's still wrong." They slid their hands together. Myra said "I hate it. I can't describe how awful it is."

"Not yet" said Ginny. "You will."

Myra turned to look at her, a flicker of memory in her eyes. "That's like -- dammit, somebody said something like that. A poet. A woman, in Russia."

Ginny pulled it from her university days. "Anna Akhmatova, is that who you mean?"

Myra's eyes were filling with tears. "Yes! Oh, god, I know this, I learned it before I moved to Seattle..." She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, strain on her face. "In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I once spent -- no, that's not right -- I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day someone in the crowd recgonized me -- no, it's identified me -- someone on the crowd identified me...and asked me in a whisper 'Can you describe this?' And I said 'I can.'" Myra began crying, quietly. Ginny pulled her face onto her shoulder and waved off a man who was watching them with concern.

Myra was done in a couple of minutes. She rubbed her face on her sleeve and said "Even crying feels different. Risky in a way it didn't used to."

"I've never known anyone as brave as you" said Ginny.

"Except for you. I just realized, I've been hearing a thread of melody in my head, some song from World War II that my mama used to hum, and I just remembered the words: 'When the lights go on again all over the world.'" She began laughing, and Ginny joined her. Myra stood and said "Beecher's next, I can't seem to get enough cheese these days. And then, before we go home, could we go look at the water somewhere?"

"The brass pig says yes" answered Ginny.

© 2008 Maggie Jochild.


letsdance said...

Maggie, thank you.....

kat said...

damn....can Gillam come crash at my place do some cooking for a while?

Liza Cowan said...

this gets better and better

Maggie Jochild said...

Ya'll, I REALLY appreciate the feedback on this section of the novel because it's been inordinately tough to write. Sorting out real life from what makes good fiction means tramping through horrific memories and letting go, letting go, letting go. The original version of this was twice as long and much less interesting, I think. Draft #3 will, hopefully, be even better.

It's interesting what emerges as a focal point to anchor a section. Like on the open prairie, you don't notice how many tumbleweeds there are until you throw up a fence and suddenly it's studded with them...This whole chapter came together when I ran across the photo of the brass pig on someone's travelogue about Seattle.

Dr. Desai, by the way, is the name of a real doctor I've been to and admire -- a cardiologist, not a GYN, but just as ethical and competent.

One summer I taught middle school girls poetry as part of the YWCA's antiracism program here -- they were all African-American kids living in housing projects. One lesson, I used the Anna Akhmatova quote as a jumping off point, explaining the background of what she lived through and asking them to write "what only they could describe". I will NEVER forget that day. One girl, pushing 13 and not used to writing at all, filled a page and then crumpled it up. She said nobody could read it, it was dangerous. I begged her not to throw it away, came up with all sorts of creative ways to save it inviolate from the eyes of others. Finally she looked at me and said "The police killed my brother." There was a deathly hush in the room. I said "I don't like the cops, either." She stared me down and said "Do you hate them? Do you wish they was all dead?" I whispered back "Sometimes. But they never killed anybody in my family."

She smoothed out the sheet and put it in the back of the poetry notebook I'd given them.

I think of her every time I recite that quote to myself. Survivors get to tell the story, and that's the power I live by.

kat said...

Maggie, I haven't been going back and comparing this draft to the one I read over the summer, so I don't always remember exact wording or anything, but this draft is definitely smoother and flows more. And I really like that we're getting glimpses of other characters' perceptions.

Jesse Wendel said...


I've struggled deeply with my writing for a while. Not my blogging. My writing.

Blogging is blogging. It has three forms: long, short, and super-short.

Major blogging variations include:
pet blogging (cat, dog, iguana, horse and others),
photo & podcast & video blogging,
live blogging.
Haz more?

Blogging has bucco of genre:
real estate,
religion (Mac v. PC, FreeBSD v. Linux, Clinton v. Obama),
thousands of different categories.

I am a decent blogger.

But then there's writing articles which:

* get picked up.
* cause blogstorms.
* change life for others. (As Maggie's article is doing for me.)
* change your identity publicly.
* change your identity privately.

And then, there is fiction.

I *** ask[ed] them to write "what only they could describe". *** I think of her every time I recite that quote to myself. Survivors get to tell the story, and that's the power I live by.

That's it. That is it, Maggie.

For months... No. For a full year I've been struggling to write even the first scene of my new screenplay.

I know the story. I know the characters. I know what I want to say. It isn't writer's block; GNB has come into existence.

My last screenplay flowed out of me. I was the survivor with a story to tell.

Now I know how to tell this one.

*hugs Maggie* Thank you SO much.

love you,