Monday, October 24, 2011
Friday, October 14, 2011
The assignment this week for the fiction writing class I’m taking was to start telling my life story in summary. (“Summary” here means the part of the story that gives the reader background about the characters, situation, etc. versus immersing the reader in a pivotal scene.) My classmates and I were told to do summary for awhile and then stop and move into a scene.
We were told this exercise could be autobiographical. Because I’m trying to learn to write fiction, I didn’t stick to the truth, nor to the facts, with this exercise. You should consider it purely fictional. (The resemblance of characters to actual people isn’t pure coincidence, I must confess.)
Before the Fall
I was late to my own birth, hitting the scene two weeks after my due date. The backdrop of my childhood was Boulder, Colorado. The seventies.
To outward appearances my family was a very close, happy one. Outward appearances were my dad’s specialty. For so many years my three brothers and I had no idea how miserable our parents’ marriage was. For Christmas one year my dad bought my mom this really posh stuffed bear called a Gund, which got him a lot of good press from his relatives. We all assumed that my mom loved the Gund, but learned later that she actually hated it for making her self-absorbed husband look caring and sensitive. If my brothers and I had only known, we could have offered to coat that bear in model airplane cement and torch it for her.
Mom was begrudgingly complicit in this illusion of a happy marriage. For example, she would let Dad kiss her hello when he got home from work. It was, I later realized, a grotesque parody of a kiss: a reluctant reaching outward of the two pairs of lips, as tentative as a young kid’s hand timidly reaching out to poke a sea urchin in a tide pool. A micro-kiss, with an absolute minimum of actual lip contact, lasting just long enough to make a little smacking sound. (See? Your parents are in love. They still kiss.)
My brothers and I fought a lot, but beneath it we respected one another. We kind of had to because we were all social outcasts. None of us got along with our classmates. Occasionally I’d encounter an older kid who knew one of my brothers and would say, “Ewww, you’re an Anderson?!” It was a stigma, but also a strange honor in some way—sort of an us-vs.-them deal.
The oldest brothers, Seth and Ryan, twins, were almost four years older than I, with Mick right in the middle. Mick and I hung out quite a bit but the others usually ignored us. The main thing that bonded the four us together was the shirking of household chores. I remember one day in particular when we killed a whole afternoon at this. Ryan was supposed to mow the lawn while the rest of us dug weeds. The lawn was half weeds and half dead. Our neighbors, the Gales, had this lush, perfect, Technicolor green lawn and the boundary between our properties was sharply delineated, like their grass was a different species, in its robust prime, while ours was disheveled and elderly and sick.
Ryan mowed one strip across the lawn, turned the lawnmower around, started back, and then ran over the cord, stopping the machine dead. (We must have been the only family in America with an electric lawnmower.) It would be weeks before Dad got around to replacing the extension cord, so Ryan was off the hook. He wheeled the dead mower back to the garage, strolled back out, and flopped on the lawn. I picked halfheartedly at a weed. We were paid three cents a weed to pull them, but the roots had to be intact. On a hot day like this, it just wasn’t worth it. I glanced over at Seth. He was lying on his back, pretending to drive a car. I watched his left foot expertly working the clutch as he went through the gears. He steered with his left hand and by the looks of it he was on a twisty mountain road. It would be two years before he was old enough to drive, but he appeared ready.
Mick was on his feet, looking across the lawn to the neighbor’s car. Mr. Gale’s son Craig was seventeen and had the coolest car—a late sixties Mustang Mach 1. It was not in good shape—if you looked closely you saw layers of flaking paint, dimpled like an orange peel, from amateur paint jobs, grey beneath orange beneath blue, and inside the upholstery was peeling like a banana—but the car had good bones. We all dreamed of getting a ride in it one day, but it wasn’t running. It just sat.
We all gave Mick our complete attention because we knew what he was thinking. He suddenly sprinted toward the car and just before he reached it he screamed, “Look out, George!” and made a terribly realistic sound effect of screeching brakes. Then next second the car had knocked him off his feet and he sprawled over the hood, bouncing twice before tumbling to the ground. Of course the car hadn’t really moved, but the illusion was uncanny: our eyes told us this kid had just been hit by a car. We ran around to the other side of the car to look at Mick sprawled on the asphalt. He was in bad shape: convulsions racked his broken body.
“Yeah, that was a good one, but I think you need to tone down the convulsions—they’re a little overdone,” Seth said. Mick got to his feet. “Yeah, you’re right,” he said. “But how was the rest of it?” He’d been practicing his stunt all summer and was still perfecting it. We made our way back to the lawn. I took my weed digger and winged it at the grass, hoping to impale the ground so the handle would stick up. I was Pepe, Steinbeck’s young hero, throwing a switchblade at a post for practice. I picked the digger back up and was about to try again when Mick took another run at the Mustang. This time, as he landed on the hood, the car horn came on, and stayed on. FRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA…. Gave us the willies.
After a few brutal minutes of vainly hoping the horn would shut off, we went and knocked on the Gales’ door. Mr. Gale answered. He was wearing a white tank top and looked like he’d just woken up. He tried to be grumpy about the car horn but couldn’t help laughing. We all must have looked stricken. He went over to the car, opened the driver’s side door, popped the hood, then came around to the front and disconnected the battery. The horn stopped. Mr. Gale asked what made it turn on and Seth and Ryan immediately ratted Mick out. That was the end of his being hit by the Mustang.
That was one of a great many useless, idle, indolent days we brothers spent that summer. The best part was that we had no idea that our basically happy family was about to be ruined. Had we known, we’d have tried to make the best of our time together, which just would have felt strained. We really didn’t know what we were about to lose until we lost it.
The end began in my mom’s car, a Volkswagen Dasher, coming back from swim practice. Ryan was riding shotgun—seating was by birth order and he was twenty minutes older than Seth—and I was in the back middle seat because I was smallest. Mom said, trying to sound casual, “What would you boys think if I told you I was thinking of divorcing your father?” A chorus: “No, Mom, don’t do it!” But it wasn’t a real inquiry—her mind was already made up.
A week before Labor Day my mom bought a condo and moved into it. Condos back then seemed a sudden, novel phenomenon and vaguely subversive, only in part because the first time I came across the term, it was on a giant “CONDOMINIUMS FOR SALE” banner that college kids had folded over itself so it read “CONDOMS FOR SALE.” Our parents, who both worked full time and had historically not paid a huge amount of attention to us kids, each began a campaign to win us over and turn us against the other parent. The ultimate prize? Custody.
So it was that on one of the last evenings of summer, Dad took Seth and Ryan to the new James Bond movie while Mom took Mick and me to Baskin-Robbins. Today’s jaded kids might not think such outings would be a big deal, but to us it was an amazing show of largesse. It was a hot day and Baskin-Robbins was completely mobbed. The line snaked out the door and across the strip mall all the way to La Paz Fine Mexican Dining. Customers sprawled across the lawn out front. When my mom realized how long we’d be waiting, she went off to go shopping. “Just meet me out front here,” she said.
Everybody gets ice cream. Out front were little kids wearing t-shirts with big iron-ons (“Star Wars,” etc.) and there were older guys who were shirtless and bronzed. Many of them had on those super-short running shorts with the piping down the side. Boys had taken off their shoes and tube socks, girls had kicked off their sandals. A teenage guy said to his girl, “God … my arms are so damn tan.” Inside, I tried to take a number from the little pink dispenser and pulled out two feet of spooled paper tickets. Mick helped me stuff it all back in there.
We didn’t mind the wait because soon enough, after the ice cream outing, after a few more days of purgatory, a few more bribes, we’d be expected to tell our parents which one we’d decided to live with. We hadn’t heard of joint custody and our parents evidently never considered it. Instead they went for the King Solomon approach, splitting the family right down the middle, with the kids working out who would go where. It was a no-win scenario and we sought to forestall it as long as possible.
Baskin-Robbins had never before seemed like such a grim place. Suddenly I was down on everything. Their “Thirty-One-Derful Flavors!” slogan struck me as really dippy. The flavor name “Here Comes the Fudge” was annoying because though I somehow knew it was a play on “Here Comes the Judge,” this cultural reference was just another that had passed me by. That French Vanilla “costs a bit more, but it’s worth it!” seemed a cynical marketing gimmick. The staff seemed bored, and then irritated at how many taste spoons I asked for. Was it my fault nothing tasted good enough?
A radio was playing and the guy next to me at the counter, a young adult, was lip-synching to the music: “I guess it’s just the woman in you that brings out the man in me.” Like that’s a good thing. As the guy reached for his ice cream cone, I noticed his bracelet. It was engraved: “DAMN I’M GOOD.” Is that how it works? You just declare how great you are? Is that why my family was collapsing—because we got tired of holding each other back with our humble, cozy complacence? Was dead-weight Dad the only obstacle to Mom becoming damn good, or getting a man who was?
Mick and I left with our cones and then they were gone in minutes and we had nothing to do but stand among the throngs outside and wait for Mom. Once she got going on errands there was no stopping her. When she finally arrived, we heard her car before we even saw it. Its engine made a distinctive rattling sound because it was a diesel. (Of course we had the only diesel station wagon in America.) Mom was driving through the parking lot at like one mile per hour because there were so many people everywhere.
And all at once, Mick saw his opening. It must have been a thrilling moment of insight, like when Watson and Crick first deduced the double helix. It was a moment of mental brilliance, and yet Mick acted on pure instinct. He raced through the crowd, bounded down off the curb, and let out a perfect brakescreech. Then—BAM!—he was bouncing over the hood of Mom’s car, which made a great noise as it caved in and then sprang back into shape. He’d left out the “Lookout, George!”—he’d finally realized, just in time for his big moment, that it was the least realistic part of the stunt. He also skipped the convulsions—when I raced around the front of the car to look at him, he was deathly still, lying on the road in a fetal position. As many times as I’d seen this stunt, I couldn’t be completely sure he hadn’t been hit. If the action had stopped here, half a dozen witnesses would have said, “I saw the whole thing! That crazy bitch must’ve been going thirty miles an hour!”
But it didn’t stop there. As people crowded around the accident scene trying to figure out what to do, Mom suddenly opened her door and jumped out. She was furious. “Get up!” she screamed. “Get up off the ground, you brat!” More amazing still, Mick rose from the dead, jumped to his feet, and the two of us got in the car. As Mom drove, cursing, from the scene, Mick and I were laughing so hard it didn’t even make any noise. We couldn’t get enough air and tears were streaming down our cheeks. It was the pinnacle of the summer and of our childhood. Our last hurrah.
From there, things unraveled predictably enough. Mick and I moved into the condo until he and Mom couldn’t stand each other anymore, and then he drifted away and began living in a total dive with a bunch of deadbeat teens, filling his days with weed and the like. I got hooked on something far worse: TV. It started out socially, watching David Letterman with friends, but it got worse over the years to the point that I ended up taping shows like “Simon and Simon” and “Remington Steele” and watching them during the day, when other kids my age were in class. I missed my brothers terribly.
Over the decades, my brothers and I eventually made good. After passing the GED, Mick took fifteen years putting himself through college, took a degree in electrical engineering, and although he’s not rich yet, he was just granted the patent for mRFIDs, microscopic radio chips that fit not just in your wallet but on your earrings or car keys. (So long as your personal effects are within a quarter mile of your smartphone, you’ll never lose them again.) Ryan has created the ingeniously compact encryption algorithm that can run on a chip that small. Seth now lives in the Netherlands where he’s a soap opera star. I’ve got a lucrative real estate job that I could do in my sleep, and usually do, as I bide by time: when Mick is a billionaire, I’ll write his authorized biography, or maybe his unauthorized biography. Maybe both. Whatever else we Andersons accomplish and enjoy, though, I doubt I’ll ever recapture that pure joy of carelessly pissing away a perfect summer day on a half-dead lawn in Boulder.
dana albert blog
Friday, October 7, 2011
I’m taking an evening class in fiction writing over at UC Berkeley, my alma mater. Our first session was last Wednesday, and the teacher had an ingenious idea. She broke the class into groups of three and had us each tell a personal anecdote to the other two students. Then she gave us ten minutes to write down our anecdote. As our homework assignment, she told us to take half an hour to rewrite our anecdote, but incorporating one of the two anecdotes we’d heard from a classmate.
At first this struck me as impossible—after all, my anecdote had nothing to do with the other ones. But as I thought about it, everything fit together very well, and it solved my biggest problem in writing fiction: coming up with an idea. Sure, half of this story started out as true, but the action now happens to someone else, and the story is merged with my doubtless faulty recollection of a secondhand tale which I then further fictionalized. I'm sure you'll agree that the result can only be considered fiction.
So here’s the story. (Yes, I went over my half-hour.)
My name is Tara. I never liked my name—it always reminded me of “Taras Bulba,” like I came from an ancient family in the steppes of the Ukraine. (It could have been worse: my mom had considered naming me “Terra,” as in Earth. My whole life I’d have been thought of as a hippie!) I grew up in Etna, California, a tiny town way up north with zero traffic lights. Most of the folks in town were poor farmers or poor ranchers. My dad was the only doctor around and though he officially worked in the hospital about half an hour away, an awful lot of his work happened at the house, at night or on weekends. Many of the locals, who either couldn’t afford or didn’t trust hospitals, would save up their problems for when he got home. Often I ended up helping him out.
My mom pretty much stayed in bed, which is a long story I won’t go into. Suffice to say I never felt like my family was very normal. Not that the townsfolk were much to compare myself with. I had to remind myself that the families on TV probably weren’t typical either.
On a Friday evening in the fall, when I was about nine, I was bored, sitting by an open window waiting for my dad to get home from work. An unexpected rainstorm had blown in and I was watching the rain come down in sheets when I heard the hiss of a car’s tires on our street. I thought it was my dad but to my surprise it was a modern black sedan I’d never seen before. It turned onto our gravel driveway and pulled up to the house. A man in a nice grey suit climbed out, walked right up to our door through the pouring rain, and rang the bell. I ran down the hall to my mom’s room and called through the door: “There’s a man in a suit at the door!” My mom told me to call my dad and ask if he was expecting anybody. The doorbell rang again.
I phoned my dad. It must have been quiet at the hospital because they found him pretty fast. “Oh, shoot!” he said. “I totally forgot. That’s Ferdinand, the account manager at Fortis. I actually had an appointment with him tonight. Tell him to hang tight—I’ll rush right over.”
“Uh, dad, it’s pouring rain here. Should I let him in?”
“No, you shouldn’t. See if your mom will let him in.”
I rang off and with a sigh called to my mom again. Sure enough, she wouldn’t come out. I got to the front door just as the doorbell rang a third time. I peeked out through the mail slot. I could see the man’s nicely pressed charcoal grey woolen slacks, and his leather shoes with a nice design pierced all around the toe. “Um, are you Ferdinand?” I asked timidly.
The man knelt down and peered through the mail slot. “Yes. I have an appointment with Dr. Stevens. Are you his daughter?”
“Yes. I just called him. He forgot about the appointment but he’s on his way here. I can’t let you in because my mom is ... busy.” I thought of adding, “She’s cleaning her rifle and isn’t quite done reassembling it.” But other than my dad, I could never get a grown-up to take me seriously.
“Um, are you sure you can’t get your mom?” he said. “I kind of, uh, locked my keys in my car. I'm getting soaked out here.” I told my mom. She still wouldn’t come out. I reported back to Ferdinand. To my surprise, he agreed to wait it out.
I went to my room and stared blankly at a book. What business did this man have with my dad? Must be important if he was willing to wait. Was he a banker? Were we losing our home? A long while later I heard the crunch of tires on gravel as my dad arrived. I got to the door just as he opened it. He was staring at Ferdinand. “Oh, man, Ferdinand, look at your suit!” he said. “It’s all bubbly! It’s ruined!”
Sure enough, the fabric of the drenched suit was all fouled up. The wool was separating from the lining and had the texture of bubble wrap. Ferdinand looked stricken. Dad led him to the kitchen table, took his suit jacket, sat him down, and gave him a fresh dishtowel to dry his head and face.
Soon there were papers spread over the table, covered with lots of fine print and some charts. My dad never sent me away when he talked to other grownups; he was always hoping I’d learn something. The two men talked awhile, but nothing they said made any sense to me until my dad finally stood up and said, “You know Ferdinand, I wasn’t actually that interested in this meeting, to be honest. You were so enthusiastic I didn’t know how to say no. But the truth is, this fund has been underperforming for years and I was planning to sell it anyway. I’d actually like to close out my account.” And just like that, the meeting was over. My dad signed some papers, and then Ferdinand packed up his briefcase, wriggled back into his wretched bubbly suit jacket, and left.
“What was that all about?” I asked.
“Well, I somehow let this guy talk me into this meeting to go over my investment portfolio. When I showed up late, and then stupidly blurted out that his suit was ruined, I actually started to feel more bold. Like, ‘I’m going to Hell anyway for keeping this man waiting in the rain, so I might as well finish him off.’ Poor guy. His business must be really hurting to come all the way out here to talk about a portfolio of only a few thousand dollars.”
“But dad, he looked ... it looked important. I’ve heard you complain about money. Couldn’t he help?”
“Yes, possibly, in some indirect way. But it’s hard to take a man like that seriously after a long day of seeing patients.”
“Why? What do you mean?”
“Well, Ferdinand moves people’s money around all day, electronically, and if he’s lucky the numbers go up. There’s nothing tangible about what he does for a living.”
“What does tangible mean?”
“You can see it. You can touch it. Money is so abstract. It’s like this all-powerful force and sometimes it just gets me down. You know the first thing that happens when a patient comes into the ER? No matter how bad the illness or injury, the patient has to work out the payment first thing. We’re supposed to be providing care for these people but the first order of business is always sorting out the payment.”
I’m sure I’ve embellished my memory of that evening. I couldn’t possibly have remembered these conversations in such detail because I wouldn’t have grasped the concepts at the time. But I understood enough to feel kind of disappointed about the meeting. Not so much about the ruined suit, but because my did dismissed Ferdinand. I kind of wanted my dad to associate with people in nice suits who drive modern cars and talk about money and investments. That was part of the more sophisticated world, the TV world, that of course I dreamed of escaping to. Being a doctor, my dad should have had all kinds of money but it never seemed he did. I suddenly felt very tired, and after a quick dinner (grilled cheese, Campbell’s soup) I went to bed.
In the middle of the night my dad shook me awake. “Tara, wake up. I have a patient and I need your help.” I couldn’t believe it, and yet I knew the drill. I dragged myself out of bed, cleared the dining room table, and spread out a fresh clean sheet for the patient.
It was Drummond, a guy down the way who raised ostriches. Ostriches! He’d somehow cut his arm really badly on some machinery. His arm was wrapped in a giant towel that was totally soaked in blood. He’d injured himself during the late afternoon and then spent the next several hours arguing with his wife about going to the hospital. He’d never been to a hospital and wasn’t going to start now, blah, blah, blah.
Dad stretched him out on the table and removed the bloody towel. Then he went to the kitchen sink and washed his hands for like five minutes straight, got out his medical kit, filled a syringe with something, and started stabbing Drummond all up and down his arm with it. It was like a five-inch needle. “This is just Novocain,” he said soothingly, as though his patient wouldn’t want anything stronger. Blood was getting all over my fresh sheet. I would be doing all the clean-up, of course. At times like this I really resented my mom, sleeping away. After all, she chose to marry a doctor in a small town and should have known what would be expected of her. Somehow that duty had slipped a generation and here I was, a little girl who didn’t choose a doctor for a father, playing surgical nurse with real blood.
We waited around for ten minutes to let the anesthetic take effect. Then Dad got started on sewing up Drummond’s arm. My job was to hold it down. This took all my strength. Drummond was a tough old dude but was clearly in great pain, and couldn’t resist trying to recoil. Dad gave him a wooden tongue depressor to bite down on and Drummond snapped it in two with his teeth. I winced. Dad gave him two more tongue depressors, stacked together. Drummond snapped those, too, sending a shiver down my back. I don’t know how biting down is supposed to help anyway; maybe it was just to keep him from cussing. Finally Dad gave him a clean rag, the color of pink clay, to chew on.
When you’re a doctor’s kid you learn how coarse medicine really is. Putting in sutures, for example, is just sewing up a guy’s skin with a needle and thread. I had to pay attention and it was like watching my mom sewing closed the Thanksgiving turkey with twine or dental floss: just as crude as can be. (By his own admission Dad was only “okay” at sutures. At the dinner table one time he ranted about a surgeon he’d watched stitch up a boy’s face. “He was so good at stitches,” he raved, “it was like plastic.” Plastic surgery, he meant. I had to remind him I was trying to eat.)
Dad finished up and sent Drummond on his way with an Ace bandage wrapped around his arm. “In about a week or ten days you can come back to have those sutures removed,” he said. “Or you can remove them yourself—just snip one and drag the whole thread out.” I was up for another half hour, cleaning up. A bed sheet really isn’t very absorbent and I was just smearing the blood around. I had to soak the sheet and towels awhile in the washing machine, on cold, before adding the detergent and starting it up. Like I said before, I knew the drill. I finally got back to bed at around three.
Fortunately, the next day was Saturday and I got to sleep in. That afternoon I was sitting on the front porch with Dad when Drummond came walking up our driveway dragging his kid’s Radio Flyer wagon behind him. Between dragging the wagon and holding his bandaged arm up over his head, Drummond was, I felt, lacking in dignity. “Good, keep that arm elevated,” Dad said. “What have we here?” The wagon was full of these giant eggs, the size of cantaloupes: ostrich eggs. Dad’s fee. Did Dad send Drummond away, like he did Ferdinand? No, he happily unloaded the wagon, acting like ostrich eggs were the greatest treasure on Earth. “Isn’t it amazing,” he mused, “that the world’s second-fastest land animal can also lay these giant eggs? Puts a hen to shame.”
Drummond didn’t say much, and was soon on his way. We would be eating giant omelets for months. I couldn’t help myself. “Dad,” I complained, “did you ever hear of money? What’s so great about these eggs?”
“Well ... just look at ‘em!” he said, still smiling.
Yeah, I know. You can see them. You can touch them.
dana albert blog