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Writing and leaving “Handprints” behind

I got my final response for this term from my current mentor today. It was a very long and detailed assessment of my novel project, a true priceless gift, since this commentary is coming from someone whom I respect and admire. I’m grateful I’ve had a chance to work with someone so devoted to literature and teaching.  As always, she made me feel as if I am a good writer with serious potential – and that I’m finally tapping into it. She say’s I’m improving and I think she’s right. Heck, no one could put this much time and concentration into something and not improve, at least a little.


 


But she had some serious things to discuss with me regarding my novel’s POV. Six months ago, I changed from the third person to the first person, trying to make a smooth transition as I worked in some academic dance essays that were important to me – an unglamorous look at dance from an “after the fact” position. I consider them interesting and revealing regarding my character’s emotional state. But I have been frustrated beyond description with this book, because the new voice just doesn’t feel natural. And it didn’t fix the problem of making the essays “belong”. The writing seems abrupt and lacks the lovely language that makes a story a pleasure to read. And my heroine is a bitch. Yikes.


 


 I also have issues with this project because the book isn’t fun. I miss the rousing historical adventures and the colorful characters I usually invent when working on my “commercial fiction”.  I miss the good sex in my books, the flirting, the humor. I miss falling in love with my hero. Literary work is admirable, but I am not convinced it is what I am cut out for – although I think studying classical fiction has been the best decision I could ever have made.


 


I think I wrote (historicals) because it was a way to escape my life and have a wild adventure that I could control. What a kick. But writing a book about dance isn’t an adventure. It is sort of like sloughing through my psyche and revisiting old wounds and disappointments. When I write about the art of dance and all its beauty, I miss dance and get sad. When I write about the shit side of dance, I get disappointed and sad. Writing this book makes me sad. Period.


 


Anyway, I have only written about 180 pages in the last year. For me that is a shock, for I am usually more prolific. Heck, I wrote more than 150 pages in my blog last month! Writing this book is like slogging through emotional cement. A chore. Perhaps it is because the work is being evaluated by esteemed professionals, or because I feel I can’t just have fun and make it a humorous story because it is supposed to be literary.


 


So – considering all this, my professor has now suggested I write it again (shoot me) in third person. I know she is right. Mark says that I should trust my first instincts (which was to write this in a combination of first and third person – seemed the thing to do naturally) because my books are always best when they first emerge, but when I start listening to other’s opinions, I mess them up. He can’t understand why I don’t have confidence enough to follow my instincts and why I listen and respond  to other’s feedback as if they know more than I do regarding what my story needs.


 


The truth is, I don’t have the confidence he expects me to have because I recognize I have so much to learn. But he is right, I should trust my instincts and allow my stories unfold as they will – naturally – and not affected by rules or standards set by what has been published before. I can barely stand the idea of re-writing my dance book yet again, but it is my thesis project, so re-write it, I will. (Gag) I will spend this month getting the manuscript ready for my next mentor. This time, I am going to get serious and write the book I want to write. Forget literary. Forget what other’s think. This is my book about dance – a subject I know better than I know my own foot. I will write my story my way and see what happens. It is, after all, only a story, one of many, many that I intend to share with others. If it is garbage, well, so be it. It is something I must “get out” more than it is something others must read.


 


I think I am in my one-year MFA slump. I have a year to go, and suddenly I am craving the time and freedom to work on something with a different tone. Well, tough for me. I think going to my residency next month will be a good thing. Inspirational.


 


I wrote a story for submission to my workshop yesterday. It will require a bit of work before I send it next week, but I will post it as is just for the heck of it. For those of you who are fans of my romance and sex stories, this will bore the crap out of ya. It is, after all, a literary endeavor and I am trying to exercise certain skills. Think of it a bit like eating your spinach. Or, since this might be a better comparison for those that know me– it is like taking ballet. You may want to be a jazz dancer, but a certain amount of technical proficiency can only be developed from classical exercises, so to be a better dancer, you get your ass in ballet and focus, like it or not. That is what I am doing in this MFA. I am developing writing muscles, finding my center, building proficiency and skill so that when I am in jazz class (historical novel world) I can kick butt, defy gravity, and be as wildly inventive as I want. Freedom rides on the wings of technique.  


 


Anyway – enough excuses. This is my story. One of two. Number two isn’t even a glimmer of an idea yet. God, I need someone to innocently say something to spark a concept. That is the beauty of a personal exchange for me.  I need my muse to step forward. It’s been sadly MIA for sometime. Miss it dreadfully.


 


HANDPRINT


By Ginny Hendry


 


     John was sleeping. Nowadays, it seemed John was always sleeping.


     Beth paused in the hallway to stare at her gently snoring husband, the flicker of the alarm clock causing a red glow to grace his forehead as if he were a marked man. It was only eight. She had hours of loneliness ahead before she too would be able to sink into the oblivion that rode on the back of sleep. The problem was, she couldn’t seem to sleep anymore, even though she was exhausted all the time. John, it seems, couldn’t wake up.


     She walked into the hall bathroom, not bothering to quiet her footsteps or dowse the light as she would have done a few months ago when John turned in early. There was no point. Her inconsideration wasn’t likely to cause him to stir. Nothing would.


    Her bare feet met the cold tile with hesitancy. The bathroom was immaculate. He’d cleaned it again. The commode gleamed and the shower door sparkled. The usual streaky soap and mildew, proof that people actually lived in the house, had been wiped away with a pungent pine scented agent that flailed her senses, annoying her more than even the rumble of his slumbering breath.


     Not that her response made sense. John’s pitching in with housework was the kind of thing that would normally delight her. It didn’t now. The family toothbrushes no longer sat on the sink in haphazard disarray as they normally did. They were tucked neatly into a plastic organizer in the drawer, along with their daughter’s hair elastics and a few Band-Aids. Beth felt the empty counter looked unnatural. The smell, the shine, the very neatness of the room, annoyed her.


   With quick, erratic movements, she rummaged through the drawer to put the toothbrushes back on the counter, poking around under the sink to find her daughter’s Strawberry Shortcake Cup. She carefully arranged the smallest toothbrush inside and tossed her Oral B on the side of the sink, thinking she should use it, but why bother?  As an afterthought, she tossed a few hair elastics into the corner by the vanity, even though she knew this would confuse John. But maybe not. He would have to wake up to notice  things like that.


     She considered taking a bath, but the polished tub just didn’t feel welcoming. Instead, she slipped on a silk nightie, thinking she’d make a cup of tea and read. Leaving the light on, she thumped down a few stairs, then turned around and went back up to the bedroom. John had rolled over, but again, he lay still as death.


     She stared at her side of the bed, an empty cradle that would sink softly if she were to ease her weight into it, but  the idea of her crawling into that bed at any hour was paramount to lying down in a coffin. She just wasn’t willing to succumb to that trapped, dark loneness when there were other alternatives.


      It was odd. So many nights they retired early to snuggle into the 300 count sheets to watch a movie in that bed; their daughter, Sara, cuddling up between them, giggling as she purposely slid her cold toes against their legs. The bed was filled with fond memories, so the deep alienation she associated with it now made little sense. Nevertheless, she abhorred the four-posted cage now. The fact that John could sleep so soundly in it made her uncomfortable too.


    She grabbed her pillow and pulled at the quilt, dragging it behind her so it slid like a serpent from a swamp of warm sheets. Cold air swept over John, causing him to stir.


    “Where’re you going?” he mumbled, his eyes remaining shut as he hugged his pillow.


     “I’m sleeping outside tonight.”


      He ran his tongue along the roof of his mouth a few times, sampling the bitter sleep secretion that settles in a person’s mouth when in a comatose state. Beth could smell him from where she stood. Apparently, he didn’t brush his teeth tonight either.


      “Please, don’t sleep with the trash again,” he said.


      “What’s it to you if I want to sleep with the trash,” Beth said, but her voice sounded more tired than challenging.


     “It’s not healthy,”


     “Tomorrow’s trash day. All the cans are down at the end of the sidewalk,” she said, bunching  a pillow up in her arms.


     “That’s not what I mean.” His voice was muffled by a pillow, making it sound as he was far away.


      “I’ll be up later,” she lied, dragging the bedding behind her. John’s snoring filtered down the hallway, proving he really wouldn’t know or care where she slept tonight. His lucidity had been a fleeting thing, as she knew it would be.


    She passed her daughter’s room noting that the door was closed. Sara hated that, so Beth quietly cracked the door open an inch, then went on down the stairs. 


    She made herself a cup of tea and sat alone in the living room to drink it, watching the moon through the window, full and bright, save one thin cloud that dared streak through the middle, as if the mist was attempting to cut the perfect, bright sphere in half.  Beth thought shadows seemed hell bent to divide everything lately.


    Outside, she could see the moon reflecting off the swing set. John had rolled up the swings once again. The silhouette of the play set showed only lumps of chain tucked up against the upper iron pole rather than rubber seats freely blowing in the wind. He said he did this because the swings hit him in the head when he mowed, but even so, it didn’t excuse the fact that he never returned the swings to right afterwards. She considered stomping through the dewy grass in her bare feet now to free the floppy seats, but decided it could wait until morning. No one would want to swing in the dark anyway.


      She sat in the living room a long time, her eyes adjusting to the dimness even though she wasn’t really seeing anything around her. Her mind was elsewhere now. She was thinking of the trash.


    When they first bought this house, they put their trashcans on the lumpy grass beside the garage, where they were forever being upended by dogs or raccoons. Beth and Sara had to walk around the yard almost everyday picking up crushed juice cartons and yogurt cups, sticky with coffee grinds and last night’s dinner scraps. Something had to be done to keep the trash intact, so John decided they should poor a concrete slab along the house and fence-in the garbage area. They called two companies to get estimates, but no one seemed interested such a small job. Finally, John decided to commit a weekend to it. He would just do the job himself, save them money and handle the trash dilemma once and for all. How hard could it be?


      The first weekend he dug up the grass and leveled the area. It took longer than he expected, but he liked how it looked. There definitely was a designated trash area now. The next, he built a two by four frame to establish the parameters of the area he would need to concrete. He then spent a third weekend mixing concrete in an old wheelbarrow, but despite bags of the stuff, it seemed as if the oblong frame would never fill. His back hurt and his hands were blistered from stirring the murky gray mortar with a rusty shovel. He complained that it felt as if he were trying to hold sand in a colander, because no matter how many bags of concrete he mixed and laid, the oblong area he thought would be a perfect, generous size, required more. He had only completed only one-half of the cement floor and still had an entire second slab to go. Meanwhile, his wife and daughter continued picking up trash, looking expectantly at the unfinished area, innocently asking when it would be complete.


     John complained. It wasn’t as if he was the one turning over the trashcans at night. He bungeed the can lids and even bought two new, snap lock cans, yet still, animals found ways to scatter the contents all over yard. The only saving grace was that John was so busy each weekend mixing concrete that he had no time to mow, so much of the remnants of last night’s dinner lay burrowed in the calf length weeds where the wayward trash was at least less obvious. 


     On the forth weekend, John announced he couldn’t mix anymore cement, so he took a break to erect a fence, satisfied that this, at least, was progress. The next weekend, he couldn’t face the project again, so he devoted that Saturday to lawn maintenance.


     “The grass does keep growing, even if there’s a trash area to build,” he snapped, when Beth asked if he planned to finish his project so his daughter could wash her hands of coffee grinds for good.   


     “Why don’t we just stick the trash cans in the fence the way it is,” she said. “Maybe all we needed was a fence all along. Really, is the concrete so very important?”


     “The concrete is what provides a clean, steady surface for the cans. Best of all, it’s permanent,” her husband insisted.


        Beth decided to let it go. John always seemed too quick to acknowledge the concept of permanence.


        The conversation forced him back to the job at hand, mixing concrete until, finally, a few more bags were all that would be needed to complete his neat, protected trash area.


     Beth and Sara made lemonade and brought a big glass out him, appointing themselves Daddy’s private cheerleaders. As John smoothed the surface of his last load of concrete to make a perfect rectangle, they “oohed” and “ahhed”, celebrating not only his well-constructed trash area, but their retirement from the daily trash pick-up chore.


    John ran a trowel over the wet concrete with a sigh of relief, growling when a leaf blew on top to mar the perfect surface.


    “Oh, no you don’t,” he said to the leaf, picking it out of the cement, crushing it between filthy palms and throwing it behind him into the grass.


    “It’s perfect, Daddy,” Sara said, clapping her hands as a four-year old is wont to do when excited.


     “Can we put our handprints in the cement?” Beth asked, thinking it would be fun to leave a lasting impression of the family here, embedded in what felt like a special communal project, considering it had consumed their weekends for almost two months.


     “The concrete’s too wet, and besides, I rather you didn’t,” John said, his brow wrinkling as if the mere idea of sinking hands into his perfect project was painful to imagine.


     “It’s just a trash area,” Beth reminded him.


     “It’s taken me forever. Is it so much to ask that we respect this work? I just want it to be perfect.”


     “Nothing’s perfect.” Beth pointed out. “Besides, a few handprints will add character.”


      “Impressions on the surface will leave dents that will do nothing but collect dirt. If it remains smooth, we can hose the area out easily and we’ll always have a perfect, clean trashcan area.” John said, wiping sweat from his forehead.


     Beth reached out to toy with his hair, something she always did when teasing him. “Now dear, get real. Is there such a thing as a perfect trash area?”


     John gestured to the streamlined cement hardening behind a secured fenced-in rectangle, then closed the gate as if baring their entrance for good. “There is now.”          


      They went inside for lunch, after which, John went upstairs to nap. Beth was surprised, because John never slept in the day, but knowing he was exhausted from his efforts, she took Sara outside to play on the swings. Her hard working husband deserved quiet and rest and swinging seemed a far more inviting pastime than picking up trash.


     Sara giggled and squealed as the motion of the swings caused her stomach to flip. Each time Beth let the momentum slow down, her daughter would whine and beg another push. After an hour, Beth couldn’t bear seeing that swing careen towards her one more time.


    “No more swinging, Honey. Mommy’s arms are tired.”             


    “Please. One more time.”


     “I can’t. Let’s find something else to do.”


     Sara’s lower lip puffed out as if she were about to wail. Beth’s eyes slid to the house wondering how long her husband was planning to rest. It was pretty unfair for him to leave her alone to entertain their demanding four year old by herself the entire Saturday.


      “I’ll tell you what,” she whispered, tickling her daughter’s tummy. “How about we put your handprint in the cement? It will be there for all time.”


    “Daddy will spank me.”


     “Daddy won’t know.”


     The child grinned devilishly, loving the idea of sharing a secret with her mother. Together, they ran to the side of the house, laughing at their mischievousness because the idea of breaking a rule was even more fun than actually doing it.


      Beth took Sara’s hand and led her to the far side of the fenced area. Kneeling to the ground, she pointed to an open space between the slats.


    “Hold your hand out like this.” She spread her fingers wide so her hand was like a flattened spider. “Put your arm through here and press it into the cement.”


     The little girl did as told. Beth guided her wrist to make sure the handprint was deep and defined. Together they giggled at the icky gray residue left on Sara’s retreating palm. They wiped her hand on the grass, and then went inside to wash her hands in the kitchen.   


      Tomorrow, before Daddy gets up, I’ll put the trash cans back and he’ll never know our secret.”  Beth said, handing her daughter a cookie from a box on the counter.


      “Will he be mad?” Sara asked, crumbs falling from the corner of her mouth.


      “Not at you,” Beth said, giving her daughter a kiss and wiping a cookie morsel away from her lip. She knew John might grumble a bit, but one look at their daughter’s tiny handprint, captured for all time, and he would understand.


       John woke a few minutes later, and no sooner did he give his daughter a hug than she blurted her guilt about wrecking Daddy’s cement. His nostrils flared and he gave Beth a perturbed glance but that was the extent of his fury. Sara described putting her handprint in the goo with such wondrous enthusiasm, it made them both laugh. It was just a trash area, after all.


      In the end, Beth never did put trashcans on the handprint. The imprint wasn’t a secret that needed hiding, besides which, she liked being able to glance down and see her daughter’s hand each time she lugged a load of kitchen scraps and old newspapers outside.


      She knew her daughter’s hands would grow. Larger. More agile. The hand that held hers would someday no longer be a toddler’s hand, but a child’s, then a young woman’s. Yet thanks to her decision to defy John’s will that one and only day, a token of their baby was forever embedded in their home, and Beth could visit it any time she wanted. Sometimes, while taking out the trash, she kneeled down to press her adult hand over Sara’s small child sized impression. If only their little girl could be preserved forever in time, small and sweet, like that handprint.  


        Beth took her teacup into the kitchen and returned to gather her quilt and pillow. She wasn’t tired but she was ready to turn in. Carrying her bedding, she padded through the garage and out the side door to the trash area where, like the night before, she would sleep. It didn’t seem odd to her. It wasn’t unsanitary or anything, because she’d hosed the concrete down just that afternoon after she discovered John had put the trash out there again. She hated when he used the area for trash, but he insisted that was what the place was for. Not to Beth. At least, not anymore.    


    She spread her quilt out onto the perfect cement, angling her pillow so she could look up at the stars.


   “Good night, Sweetie,” she whispered, her voice floating up from behind the secure fence and fading on the wind as it floated into the vast dark. A dog barked. A garage door closed in the distance. Beth stretched her hand out to cover the small impression beside her, a hand that would never get any bigger.


     Holding it, she fell asleep to dream of swinging. 


     

About Ginny East Shaddock

Director of Heartwood Retreat Center, Ginny is also a writer. This is her personal blog with essay form writing about life and reflection. My entries are often lengthy and random, because I'm not here to promote or sell anything. I'm not expecting followers - just find this format a good place to think with the pen.

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