Monday, August 12, 2013

The Point

Yesterday, near Round Mountain in Utah, I found a jagged stone struck by many tiny blows, leaving behind the trace of the human being who had met and shaped it. It wasn't a perfect arrowhead--part of the bottom was missing--but still I held it in my hand, wonderingly. All my life I've hoped to find arrowheads, or "points" as they are known by those who study them seriously; but rarely have I had much luck. In fact, I've noticed that I am luckiest at finding points when I'm not really looking for them.

Now let me tell you a story:

Many years ago, around the turn of the millennium, I was living on a large ranch in the Texas hill country near Austin. The ranch had been set aside by the university there as a place for writers to be left in peace to do their work, and I had been lucky enough to win a fellowship which allowed me to live in the ranch house and on the grounds for half a year, all alone but for the limestone cliffs and the blowing grass and the animals that came to peek in at the windows. When I wasn't writing, I wandered the hills and bluffs and creeks, my  nose pointed downward, because I knew Native Americans had once lived on the land, and there must be signs, artifacts. But all I found were jagged bits of rock that could have been anything, that looked more like accidents than intention.

One day as I sat at my desk writing, a pick-up truck crossed the creek, pulling up to the ranch house, and two men in workers' jumpsuits jumped out and came knocking on the door. One was small and polite and explained to me that they had come to check on the well. (Writers are not expected to care for the Paisano Ranch; most would have no idea how to do so.) The other man was tall and bitter-looking and rudely crushed his cigarette out under his heel on the porch right in front of me, giving me a look that said, plain as day, Yeah, you arty types. You think you're special, look down on the likes of us, I bet, but you can't even take care of your own backyard.

I tried to undo his thoughts, thanking both men profusely for the work they were about to do and smiling and explaining how appreciative I was; but the taller man turned a cold shoulder on me as the smaller man walked to the well house. I went back to writing for a while, and then came out to see if they needed anything. The polite young man was still there, by the well pump, but his angry partner was nowhere in sight.

"Is your friend okay?" I asked.

"Mike? He's fine. He went off looking for points."

My heart jumped. I stayed inside until I saw him coming back, then ran out.

"I hear you know how to look for arrowheads!"

He looked stealthily at me. "No. Can't do that here. Wouldn't be legal for me."

"Oh," I slumped, disappointed. "It's just . . .  Well, all my life I've wanted to find an arrowhead. I've been looking since I was a kid. But I've never found one. And I've looked and looked and looked all around here, too."

His face changed slightly. "Oh yeah?"

"Yeah . . . You find them, sometimes?"

"Sure, all the time. You just have to know where to look," he said, a little superior now.

"I envy you. I've found a few things, but I don't think they're anything. I keep them on the desk. I don't suppose you'd be willing to look and tell me if . . ."

"Well. I guess I could come in and take a look."


He sifted through my little pile of chipped agates. "No, these ain't anything. But this here could be a scraper." He held it up to the light of the window, impressed. "It sure could. You should keep looking."

"Really? If only I knew where to look, how to look."

He put the stone down and left the house, quickly. "You just go look along the limestone bluffs. By the creek. Look for old fires. Signs of burning. Look for middens. Piles of waste. That's all I can tell you."

"Okay. Thanks."

They left, and for days, for weeks, I did as he instructed. I looked along the creek, I tried to find signs of work and habitation and discard. I scoured the earth--but I couldn't find anything. I could not see what he so clearly saw.

A week or so before I was, sadly, scheduled to leave the ranch, the two men came again to look at the well. The polite one came to the door, but the gruff one, Mike, did not.

"Oh, he's off lookin' for something again," his partner said. "Cheers him up."

I went back inside. A little while later I heard a knock on the door, and opened it, and tall Mike was there.

"So here," he said. "See?"

And he held out the most perfectly sculpted, elongated, bone-colored spear point I had ever seen.

"Oh," I said wistfully. "Oh. That is so beautiful. Wow."

"It's for you."

"Excuse me?"

"You take it."

"What?"

"Take it. It's a good one. It's about 10,000 years old. It ain't from around here," he said quickly. "I brought it for you."

"What are you talking about? It's yours. You found it."

"It's no big deal. I got hundreds. I brought you something else, too."

He reached around, and from his back pocket took out a neat yellow bandanna, unfolding it. On it was printed the outline and shape of every kind of major point to be found in Texas, he explained to me, along with the proper name written underneath. So now, he said, when I went out point-hunting, I could wear it, and check the stones I found, to see if I had really found anything at all.

I was speechless. I stared at his sun-worn, smoke-worn face.

"These are the most beautiful gifts anyone has ever given me," I said, and I meant it.

"Nah."

"I have to hug you now. Get ready."

We held each other for a long moment, two seekers.

"Okay. You just keep going," he said roughly as he left. "Don't give up, now."

The truck pulled away. I left the ranch the next week. And I never saw the point hunter again.

I keep the stone he gave me on my desk, and the bandanna in the drawer beside it, ready.

Not long ago, hiking in the desert at Joshua Tree, in California, I had given up again. I climbed over a little bluff, and at the crest of it a gust of wind blew up and knocked dust into my eyes. I had to stop and duck my head and wipe the grit out. As I bent, I saw something lying on the ground. A spear tip, long, bone-colored, pointed to where I had not been looking.


--MD

Author of The Deadwood Beetle and The Medusa Tree

Friday, April 12, 2013

"What Are You Afraid Of?"

A story from American Stories NOW is now available at your magazine stand . . .
Check out the May 2013 issue of Reader's Digest . . .






(and yes that's me walking the slack-line :-)



Friday, February 22, 2013

Persimmon Tree

Tonight I heard a story. The interesting thing--well, there are two interesting things--well, no, there are so many interesting things, on any given evening, in any place in the world, American or otherwise--the interesting thing among many interesting things is that it did not seem, immediately, like a story. The funny thing--not ha-ha funny, but isn't-that-curious funny, isn't that just what you might expect, but you didn't, funny--is that I was about to get up in front of an audience and tell a story myself. I was in Columbus, Georgia, getting ready to read a strange and haunting tale, when a woman I knew walked in with a woman I didn't, whom I had only just met. I knew the two were sisters--that much I knew--and I greeted them both. They sat down. We chatted while the rest of the audience found its places. What are you doing tomorrow? I asked. We are going to see our mother in her rest home, they said. How old is your mother? I asked. She is 91 years old. My goodness, I said, 91. How is her mind? Well, she knows who we are . . . and she knows when her mind isn't working properly. She's very aware when it isn't and she'll look quite amazed and smile and she'll say, "You know, someone really ought to try to get into my mind and study it and see what on earth is going on there."

Then, without really deciding that we were all listening to a story together, the sisters told me that their mother knew when something wasn't quite right about the way her mind worked, these days, and that she tried to describe it.

"My mind is so focused. It's strange. I keep coming back to the same thing over and over. I keep seeing the persimmon tree by our house when I was a little girl," she said. "I'm so focused."

The sisters do some quick caculations in front of me. Their mother would have been no more than ten years old when she lived beside that tree. At ten, she and the family had moved away from that house.

"But my mind keeps going back that persimmon tree, I tell you. I don't know why. I never thought about it much when we were living there. I never ate its fruit. I never climbed it. I never played around it. I never thought about it at all. It was just a tree. Now I think about it all the time. My mind goes there. It just goes, I can't stop it. Why, why am I thinking about that persimmon tree?"

The audience had all found their seats and it was time for me to tell my story. As it happens, this particular story is about an elderly woman whose mind is doing some very strange things, and as I am telling the story, a little part of my mind is caught, like a small paper kite, in that persimmon tree. I keep seeing the persimmon tree, as if it is growing straight out of the center of the audience. I notice, with that part of my mind that knows how to do these things while another part of my mind is doing something else, that everyone in that audience is gathered around that persimmon tree, a persimmon tree that we did not even know existed, and maybe did not even exist anymore, except that it did, because memory had turned it into a living, growing thing that had sprouted inside and then outside the brain of an old woman, who had connected it to two daughters, who had carried it like a cutting into this space where it rooted and grew in a place with no soil, where it grew in thin air.

And I thought, unable to tear my mind from the persimmon tree: here is a story about a persimmon tree. Except it really isn't a story at all. It is nothing really. Just a whisper, a snatch of conversation, a way to fill the time before a real, published story began.

And while I told my own story, my finished and published story, printed and bound story, behaving like it was the most solid thing in the world, outside it began to rain, and the rain caught in the trees and made a sound like a kite trying to get free.

And the sisters were nodding and giving me all their attention, and so was everyone, very nicely, in this audience in Columbus, Georgia, and I realized that this is what a story is, it is a thing we all agree to look at, and focus on, although it is not there.

After I am done speaking someone raises a hand and asks how I get my ideas, where my stories come from. I am not 91, so I answer quickly:

I have no idea. They just come.


--MD

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Wedded to My Seat: Keeping Faith With a Story

My new novella, The Wedding of Anna F., has been published this week in Big Fiction. Here is how the story, about a woman who believes she is Anne Frank, begins:

The interviewer is coming today. So. Here is the simple part: choosing what to wear. I’ve told my little assistant buzzing downstairs—no, that isn’t fair of me, she isn’t little, she looms over my life, in fact, and she’s more than an assistant, she’s almost a kind of nurse, at times—I’ve told Maia to leave me alone for a bit, to let me be quiet, so I can get ready for my time with him, and then for my birthday celebration to follow; because I need a rest after having spent the whole morning in my study, organizing my documents and letters, the private papers that will sum me up, in my eighty-third year—work that has been the easier part of this day, now that I think of it, at least compared to what’s going to come later on, compared to what is coming on now.

I hope I can manage it all. I don’t tire easily, thank goodness. For my age I’m still fairly sound—apart, that is, from the slight deafness in my left ear, the result of being left lying in the mud at Belsen. Of course, no one knows I’ve ever been there. But this much is true: I’ve never needed or wanted much rest, since then.

***

Such "easy" lines, as I look at them now--easy in the sense that all work has been erased, all the sleepless nights spent worrying over a story, a voice, that wouldn't leave me alone; all the clumsy drafts hidden behind this one, the final, polished version; all the hours spent staring at the keyboard struggling to understand what this stranger was trying to whisper to me; all the moments when I leapt from my seat because something that had eluded suddenly barked, clear; all the doubt; all the frustration; all the hours when I could have been out in the sun.

And yet the lines aren't "easy," even now. They are a suspension bridge, the kind made of ropes cast over ravines in jungle places. They led and lead into a place that is both dark and light, both myth and reality; they go places I didn't expect at all. Even now I can feel the swaying, the tension, the danger, though all the work is behind me. There were many times when I thought I wouldn't finish this tale. It is too hard, I told myself. It is too strange. There be animals in the shadows.

How do we keep faith with stories . . . not just the stories we write, but the stories we read?  Where does that faith come from? A story is such a fragile thing. Today I met with a few students, and we discussed how stories are powerful, how they have the ability to move us and arrest us, stop us dead in our tracks, at the same time. How anyone who knows how to tell a good story holds the keys to a city.

But stories are tents, too. They are tenuous, canvas and stake and knot against earth. They can, and do, collapse if we don't put our backs into them, and even if we do. There are no guarantees. There is no law on earth that says a story must be finished, or when it is finished that it must be read.

I kept faith with Anna over several years. I put her aside for long stretches of time. I came back to her when she grew noisy and her mystery unbearable. I set her aside again when her impossibilities wore me out. I lived. I worked. I moved to a new state. I picked her up again like a cold I kept catching over and over. And slowly, slowly, something started to take shape. I felt better. She got stronger. I picked up an ax. The bridges behind you don't matter. Cut. Chop. Burn. The only way, for a writer, is forward. A path through the trees.

Now here I am. The story is finished, the faith is . . . what?  Not "rewarded." Reward is the wrong word.

Faith is not a stolen bicycle.

Perhaps it is the chair Anna sits in as she tells her story. Is that what faith is? Hard but steady. Adirondack you take over and over again.

Forget all the rest, the story says, forget everything up to now.

Sit with me.

--MD

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Lost Our Lease



It's been a while since I posted on this blog.

I could tell you I have been busy. I have been. I can tell you I am sometimes overwhelmed by stories, that I don't always feel up to the challenge of honoring the real people I meet; that sometimes it's easier to write fiction; that often the people I meet contain, carry, stories so large that the very idea of trying to capture them in a blog entry seems paltry, even mad: like throwing a dart at a tidal wave.

Two things happened yesterday. I met a woman in a furniture store. And I read a poem by Minnie Bruce Pratt.

Klausen's Furniture in Greensboro, North Carolina, is closing its doors. "Lost Our Lease!" the brassy banners read in the windows. My husband and I are still trying to furnish our new home, so when we see the italics, Total Liquidation, Everything Must Go, we pull in, park the car, nudged like flies toward meat.

"Lost Our Lease" is, in North Carolina, a euphemism for We can no longer hang on and compete with cheap goods from other countries. Deserted furniture stores litter the landscape. Dying ones put on a bright face. To walk into a dying one is like picking your way through a tree farm after Christmas. You try to pay attention to what's still standing, but all you can see are the holes.

No sooner have we come through the door into the half-empty showroom than we are approached by an elderly saleswoman. She reminds me instantly of my grandmother: short, stout, close-cropped gray hair, bright eyes behind no-nonsense glasses, right hand leaning on a polished black cane. The hand itself is encased in a fingerless black leather glove, I guess to protect it from chafing. But it makes her look like a fighter, or a biker.

"Can I help you with anything?" she smiles and comes toward us, not slowly. She keeps ahead of the other sales people, who are half-lounging, as though they've given up.

"We're just going to wander through."

"Well I'm Nikki. Let me know if you see anything."

We walk quickly past the naked mattress and the sausage-link couches nobody, including us, seems to want. We make a circle through the store; and at the end of it there is Nikki again. I look at a pile of bright throw pillows, marked down fifty percent and more. My husband stands close by. He doesn't care about pillows. He turns to her.

"Nikki, is the store maybe moving somewhere else?"

"No. They're just completely going out of business."

"I'm sorry. Have you been working here a long time?"

"Four weeks."

"I'm--did--did you say four weeks?"

"Yes," she nods.

Pressed to my stomach I have two turquoise pillows originally marked at twenty dollars a piece. In a few minutes Klausen's will sell them to me for ten.

"Let me write that up for you and get you a bag," Nikki says, and balances her cane on a sofa table so she can take the pillows away from me.

My husband's eyes follow her limp. When she returns, he asks:

"Nikki, did you know the store was going out of business when you took this job?"

"Oh, sure. I had no choice, though. I'm sixty-three, and I can't afford to retire. And it's not easy, these days." Nikki doesn't say this in a complaining way. More as if she is genuinely amazed. She looks at my husband as if  for a question somebody ought to ask. Then:  "Because, if you're old, they don't want you, and if you're a woman, it doesn't help. And then they see this cane, and even though I get around just as quick as anybody, it doesn't help when they see it.  Well.  Here you go, dear."  She smiles professionally and hands me a brown bag, too big for the small pillows inside.

They don't have the right size, I think stupidly. They're just using whatever's left.

"I'm sorry, Nikki," my husband says. "It's hard."

"You bet." She sighs. "I just start, and it's over. I was just getting to know people, and know what to do, know the place, and then . . . Those are really nice pillows," she turns to me, remembering, professional again. She has learned. She wants me to see it. "I hope you get lots of enjoyment out of them."

We go home. The pillows look wrong, as bright things against dark often do.

   Temporary Job
by Minnie Bruce Pratt

Leaving again. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t be
grieving. The particulars of place lodged in me,
like this room I lived in for eleven days,
how I learned the way the sun laid its palm
over the side window in the morning, heavy
light, how I’ll never be held in that hand again.

From Pratt's new collection of poems, Inside the Money Machine.

Nikki estimates she has three weeks of work left.


--MD

Photo: Detail from the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Washington, DC.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

At Fifth and Market



      An old woman sits at a window. A street runs below her.  It once shuttled fattened taxis past her building. Now buses, on natural fuel, run silent as fog.

      Men, one day, stopped wearing hats. Young people dressed without buttons. Taxis lost their hips. In its center, a mirror grew a round spot, like a coin fused to a fountain.

The demolition crew comes. Window, she thinks, you’ll give up before I do.

--MD

Photo by Bruce Barone

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Story on the Streets!

Dear Friends,

I'm very proud to announce that I am now part of new graffiti, a grassroots publishing project that gets literature out of our iPads and Kindles, off of our bookshelves, and onto the streets!  Want to get involved?  Go to http://newgraffitipublishing.com/ and check out its latest project, which marries my short story "Observatory" with artwork by Sarah Stone.  Visit the "Downloadable" page to print a poster-, letter- or postcard-sized image of "Observatory"--and post it wherever you think it will create something unexpected in the world!

And thank you, friends, for all you do to support writing, words, and creativity.  It is a joy to be part of this time and place with you.

MD

Friday, March 16, 2012

Six-Word Memoirs









From some of my freshman writers at Guilford College, who this week celebrated the power, mystery and impact of brief language:


Bills unpaid. Memories destroyed. Kick. Push. --Joe Able

Missed Period. Frightened Girl. Waiting Results.  --Kimberly Newton

What a jerk. Who's she?  Broken.  --Haley Andrews

Alone. Music blasting. Clenching the wheel. --Mollie Sewell

Darkness, black.  "PERMISSION."  Brightness, white. --Soobin Park

Time never dies, powerful, powerless . . .   --Issa Abdallah

Dread-head. Honor Student. F**k Stereotypes. --Devin Martin


Rock, air. Look down. Life, death.  --Elliot Freshwater 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Ask That

My husband, wonderful man, asks questions.  He collects stories.  He loves to listen to you.  He is not, by choice, a writer.  He's simply very curious, and attentive; and he would much rather speak to you about something moving and unexpected than about something dull and plainsong.  This is why, sitting down to dinner with my parents this week--we hadn't seen them in quite some time--he turned to my mother, and rather than intoning "pass the salt" or "let's have a moment of silence" or "how was your flight," he looked her in the eye and smiled and began with,

"Now.  Tell me a powerful moment from your childhood.  Don't think about it.  Just share the first thing that comes into your mind.  What is it?"

"The smell of tin."

Instantly.

After a moment's surprise, and a pause, she said again,

"Tin!  It's tin in the sun."

She went on:

"I'm very little.  This is the first house I can remember.  We had other houses before this one, but I don't remember them.  This one had a backyard, and my mother used to give me baths in a tub in the yard.  That's how children were bathed then."

"In the 1940's."

"Yes.  You took the tin tub outside, and you filled it with warm water . . .  And so when I smelled tin in the sun, I knew, I knew, I knew . . ."  Her eyes grew big, and she smiled the way a child does, with eyebrows going up as if the sun has risen in the sky for the first time.  "I was going to get a bath."

We all sat for a moment.  Smell of warm metal in the air.  Wet skin.  Quick as that.

Naked.

Fire.

Fork tastes sharper.

Mama doesn't look the same.

Sharper.

All for the question.  All for the asking.

You didn't know.  How could you?

Not what you thought you should: something else, my husband reminds me all the time.  Ask that.

--MD

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Hibernaculum

I am waiting for the bat.

In July, when we moved in, he was here.

He roosted in a corner of our screened attic window, wadded tightly, a velvet sock rolled into the lower right corner.  Sometimes he hung upside down, a hooded bulb.

Smaller than the paper lanterns hanging above him, the two empty wasp-nests.

Heavier than the dried leaves clinging in the spiderwebs.

Little brown bat.

I ran to the computer, looked him up.  Little brown bat.  That was, in fact, his name.  Myotis lucifugus.  American little brown bat.  Male because solitary.  Sleepy because summer.  Works for four hours a day.  Flies and darts and catches.  But that's hard work, so he must rest much of the time.  I understand this.  I am a writer.
 
I fell in love.

Although I knew I shouldn't, I visited him daily. I have never lived with a bat, and I couldn't help myself.  I opened the door, ducked under the beam, crept toward the eave to stare.  Often I couldn't see his face.  It was hidden like a pea in a mattress.  When I could see it, it was small and strange and sharp, like something I should be comfortable with, but wasn't.

Little brown bat.

You are not allowed to kill the little brown bat.  He is protected.  When the exterminator came to the house, I made sure he knew.  There are some things, of course, you are allowed to do--like turn on the light three times a day to look at him--but you probably shouldn't.  Eventually I got a hold of myself, cut back like a smoker.  I came late at night, to see that he was gone, off hunting and catching.  I came in the morning, too, to see that he was back.  Every time, this terrible dread that he wouldn't be.

One may fret over a bat in the same way one frets over a lover or an idea.

"The little brown bat can be distinguished from the Indiana bat by the absence of a keel on the caclar and the presence of hairs on the hind feet that extend past the toes"--but I have no idea what this means, and I never got close enough, and I am vaguely resentful.  There are some things about a bat that should remain a mystery.

One day, late in fall, he didn't come home.  I scurried to my computer (I wasn't at my computer because there is always something you can do that is easier than writing, and looking at a little brown bat is one of those things).  A little brown bat must hibernate; he will fly south to find a mate, procreate, and seek a hibernaculum.  The beauty of that word made up, a little, for the loss.

The little brown bat is now, I assume, in a cave or an abandoned mine.  I too am drawn to caves and abandoned mines, and often go and live in them myself.  Sometimes, it's important to not even try to do anything.

Now I am waiting for the bat.

The computer says he might not be back until May.  It says nothing about whether the little brown bat likes to come back to the same roost, each year, it says nothing about ambition or variety.  The little corner where he slept is an empty yoke.  I don't go and look every day.  The last time, I mistook a fresh leaf for his body.

The wingspan of the little brown bat is eight to eleven inches.  Its membrane is dark brown.

What is the definition of little?


--MD