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Archive for August, 2009

Mrs. Naughton said, “I want each of you to stand up and say your name and one thing you did this summer.” Wavy felt it building all around her. The curiosity, the watching, like butter bubbling on the skillet before she poured Kellen’s eggs in.

Down the rows they went, following the alphabet. That was how Mrs. Naughton arranged the desks, so that Wavy was near the end. Maybe something would happen before they got to her. Maybe the fire alarm would go off. Or maybe there would be a tornado like there was in the spring. They had all gone into the dark hallway behind the gymnasium and lots of kids had cried. Wavy liked it. The darkness and the strange huddling, waiting for a tornado to come and tear the school away.

Nothing like that happened. It never did when you wanted it to. Just like Mama was only Good Mama when she wanted to be. Not when you wanted her to be.

Then it was time for the girl next to Wavy to stand up. Her name was Caroline Peters and over the summer she visited her grandmother in Connecticut. And her grandmother had a Persian cat with very long white fur. And and and …

“That’s enough, Caroline,” Mrs. Naughton said. “One thing.”

Wavy saw what kind of trick it was. She had something to say. She had several things to say. She had gone to visit her cousins in Tulsa. She had learned to adjust the idle on a Harley-Davidson Softail. She had gone into the meadow and watched stars with Kellen. Her little brother had learned to walk and how to say her name. She had cooked dinner for Kellen when he was tired and he had let her take care of him. While he was asleep she had kissed him.

That was the trick. To make her want to say something, even though it wasn’t safe. Mrs. Naughton was looking at her. Frowning.

“Go ahead, dear. Stand up and say your name and one thing you did this summer. Don’t be shy.”

Shy. Like she was afraid to speak. That was a trick, too. Like the kids on the playground daring each other, saying, “What are you, chicken?” Wavy wasn’t chicken, but she wasn’t stupid enough to fall for that trick.

“Mrs. Naughton,” said Caroline Peters.

“You’ve already had your turn, Caroline.”

“That’s Wavy Quinn. She can’t talk.”

“She most certainly can talk. She chooses not to talk. And if she persists with that behavior in my classroom, it’s going to earn her a mark on the board.”

Wavy's name on the board

Wavy’s name on the board

Mrs. Naughton walked to the chalkboard and wrote “Wavy Quinn” in the upper right corner. Later in the day, she put a little mark next to Wavy’s name. After recess, she also wrote “Michael Ames” and “Jimmy Didier.” Jimmy got a mark next to his name, too, but that was for talking too much.

Every day it was like that. Wavy’s name wasn’t always the first one of the board, but it always went on the board. If it hadn’t been on the board before lunch, it went on the board after lunch, because Mrs. Naughton said she had to eat lunch. Or else a mark on the board.

One day, Wavy came back from lunch and wrote her own name on the board. She liked the way her W looked better, with the pretty arches on either side and the elegant loop in the middle.

“That is not your job. I am the teacher and you are a very disrespectful little girl,” Mrs. Naughton said through clenched teeth as she erased Wavy’s name. She rewrote it with a plain W and put a mark next to it. Not eating lunch. Being disrespectful. That was what Wavy’s grade report said at the quarter. A list of every day Wavy’s name had been on the board and why.

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Another little excerpt from the same project I posted last week.  This is six months after her encounter with the Giant in the road. Which Giant turns out to be named Kellen and very nice.

***

Why did Mama have to be so mean when she was being Good Mama? The day was so nice until I went home and then Good Mama was there. So many nice things, I got to make a list. I didn’t get to make a list every day. Most days there wasn’t anything to put on the list, but that day there were lots of things.

Miss DeGrassi thinking Kellen was my father. That was the best thing, because it was so silly, I almost laughed. He didn’t look like Ewan at all. Also getting new boots and a helmet was on the list.

No, Kellen was the best thing. Riding on the bike after that. Then the helmet and new boots. Then Miss Degrassi thinking Kellen was my father. And stolen library books in my backpack.

The problem with Good Mama was how you had to act. You were supposed to want what Good Mama wanted.

You were supposed to be happy that Good Mama was out of bed and cleaning house. Cleaning cleaning cleaning, so that there was dust everywhere that made you sneeze, and chemicals that made your eyes water.

You weren’t supposed to wish Kellen had stayed to play with the baby.

You weren’t supposed to wish that Kellen was there to read library books with you. He didn’t read very fast, but it was better to have him read than to have Mama read. Because he only read what was in the book. He didn’t make up lies that I knew weren’t in the book. I wasn’t a stupid baby. I could read and I knew those things weren’t in my books.

Mommy's Little Helper

Mommy’s Little Helper

With Good Mama, you were supposed to run inside and hug her. You weren’t supposed to cross your arms and try to run upstairs with your stolen library books.

You were supposed to say, “Oh, Mama, you made cookies!” You weren’t supposed to look at them until she said, “Why do you do this? Just eat the cookies.”

If Good Mama said, “Wipe your nose,” you were supposed to go into the bathroom and use a tissue. You weren’t supposed to do it on your sleeve. You weren’t supposed to have a runny nose at all, or Good Mama would accuse you of being “germy.”

You weren’t supposed to lie and pretend you didn’t have homework, because you didn’t want Good Mama to sit at the table with you and boss you around while you did it. Good Mama would find out. She would take your homework out and look at it so you knew it wasn’t good enough.

“Wavy? Wavy? Why do all your papers say Wavy?” When good Mama asked that, probably you were supposed to shrug or start writing Vonnie or Wavonna the way you used to.

You weren’t supposed to say, “Kellen calls me Wavy. I like it.”

Because if you did, Good Mama would say, “I’m sure Kellen is a very nice person, but he’s also as dumb as a box of hammers.”

Good Mama was so mean. I hated her.

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I’m doing something a little strange for me: posting a teaser from something that is very much a work in progress. Something I wrote last night, in fact. The narrator here is an 8-year-old girl. She’s spent the night hiding in the meadow, and as the sun is coming up, she’s hiking back to her house. When she reaches the road, a guy on a motorcycle goes by. Startled by her unexpected presence in a hay field at dawn, he does a double-take, skids on gravel, and spills his bike. What does it all mean? I don’t know yet.

***

The Giant sat up. He winced and rubbed at his elbow and then his shoulder. Then his big hand touched the back of his head. It came away bloody. He stared at it for a moment then reached for me. I thought about fighting. Running. But his hand was shaking where he held my shoulder.

“Goddamn. I thought you were a ghost or something. Where did you come from?”

I pointed toward Mama’s house.

“You’re not an angel?”

I shook my head.

“You sure? ’cause I think I just about bought the farm. Wonder how fucked up my bike is.” He got up on his knees, awkward with his left arm held close to his body. He touched me again, his hand skittering over my hair. “You got grass and leaves in your hair.”

He smoothed it. Gentle and still shaky. For me or for him, I didn’t know, but he petted my hair for a minute, and looked at me. I looked back. Not everyone is safe to look at. There are ways to get into you through your eyes. But I was sure he wouldn’t creep inside my eyes and steal me away, the way Mama said people could.

When he started to stand, I put my arm around him to help. Silly, thinking I could help, but he leaned into me like I could. For a second, I breathed him in. His oily black hair was delicious mint and dirt. Then he got on his feet, and I filled my nose with the smell of the rest of him: sweat and fuel and sharp chemicals. We lurched and shuffled toward the bike. His ankle must have hurt, too.

Bike Spill

Bike Spill

“Turn the key off. To your left,” the Giant said.

The motorcycle’s engine dropped away to silence when I did it. I tugged the key out, let it dangle on my finger, a little silver skull balancing on the other end of the chain. To take it from me, he let go of his left elbow. His hand was bloody, dripping into the dirt, and he smudged it down his jeans when he put the key into his pocket.

“You gonna help me up to the house or you got more business down here in the meadow?”

“I can help,” I said. Because he was safe that way, too. It was safe for me to say something.

“Hey, you can talk.” I let him put his hand on my shoulder and together we walked up the road to the house. He talked the whole way and I knew why. To make me easy, the same reason Grandma had talked so much. She talked too much sometimes, afraid of quiet.

He told me about the bike. The custom paint job. Probably fucked all to shit. The way the dew had glinted off my hair and the meadow hay. The tattoo on his arm. I already knew it was a dirty word, but he didn’t say “motherfucker” that way. It was just a word. He asked if there were rabbits in the meadow, but he seemed to know there were. Like he asked to leave a space in his talking. A place for me to say something if I wanted.

We didn’t make it all the way to the house. Just to the stone steps that went up from the road to the barn. He sat down there, holding his arm tight and breathing hard. I waited, worried I needed to fill that space, but then he looked at me.

“Can you go up to the house and call somebody for me?”

The phone was on the kitchen wall, but I hadn’t used one before. Ever. There were people you couldn’t smell on the other end of phones. And your ear. Your ears were openings, too, Mama said. The blood from his head ran down his neck. His black t-shirt drank it up. I nodded.

He told me the numbers. Then he wrote them out with his finger on my arm. Streaks of blood. “Do you know your numbers?” he said. I knew it was because I was so small. He thought I couldn’t read. So I read the numbers back to him, from his blood on my arm.

I brought my hand up to my ear, making a pretend phone, the way Aunt Brenda did when she said, “I’ll call you.” To show him I understood. Then I thought of something else. A complication. I reached out. Brave for me. Knowing how secrets like that work. The mouth is a dangerous place, Mama said. A dirty place. But I wanted to. I touched his lips. Warm and dry.

“Your name?” I said.

“Kellen. Jesse Joe Kellen.”

I thought of how he left spaces for me when he talked, but it was okay that they were empty. He didn’t mind that they were empty.

If I saw him again, I decided I might put things in those spaces.

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Things have recently heated up over on the Wylie-Merrick blog on the topic of advertising in books.  Scott Jensen, a reader of the blog, was invited to post his ideas about the future of e-publishing, which in his opinion will mostly involve books being free to consumers.

We’re all familiar with the phrase “there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” but I think we often forget what it really means.  “Free to the consumer” for example isn’t quite true.  In Scott Jensen’s view of future publishing, advertisers will bear the cost of producing and distributing the e-books.  Scott seems to like the idea and has some interesting concepts for actually integrating the advertising into the book-reading experience.

Nothing against Scott or his ideas for his own writing, but for me, as a reader … it gives me the willies.  While a consumer downloading these books wouldn’t pay any cash for the book, he/she would pay in time spent viewing advertising between chapters.  Like commercials on television.  Because we all love commercials on television, right?   I was called an “elitist” for my hatred of commercials, but I know I’m not alone.

Almost since the beginning of television, people have been devising ways to avoid watching commercials.  They go to the kitchen for a snack, let the dog out to pee, or myriad other household chores that only require two minutes.  The VCR allowed people to simply fast forward through commercials.  Tivo does the same.  The incredible popularity of television shows on DVD makes it clear that lots of people enjoy watching TV without the commercials.

Are all those commercial-skipping people elitists?  Are they all wrong?  Would they be joyfully converted to enjoying commercials in books?  You know, the books that vast numbers of Americans can’t be bothered to check out “free of charge” from the library now?  Would those books be more attractive with ads in them?

It has been suggested that “free” books, paid for by advertisers, would be beneficial to poor people.  The masses, if you will.  I don’t get it.  Seriously.  I’m not being snarky, but I don’t get how e-books with commercials in them would make more books available to poor people.  Poor people can already get books from the library.  Even dead broke homeless people can get a library card where I am.

When I was a kid, being raised by my hard-working single mother, we always got our books from the library.  There wasn’t some Big, Evil, Greedy Publisher lording it over us because we were poor, twirling his mustache and saying, “No books for you, dirty little Okie.”  That’s why I find it hard to imagine businesses as Duddley-Do-Right, come to save the day with their advertising dollars.  Corporations advertise to sell more product, in order to benefit their shareholders, not to provide a public service.

The thing we don’t often think about is what’s being sold.  When a television broadcaster sells advertising time to a business, the business isn’t buying x minutes of broadcast time.  The business is buying x viewers.  Advertising is valued based on the number of expected viewers for the time slot.  So if I’m watching television, the advertisers are buying my time.  They’re buying me.  To be honest, that creeps me out a little.  Especially if I carry that feeling over to reading.

For Sale

For Sale

I love books.  Right or wrong, I trust books.  When I’m reading a good story, I’m vulnerable in a way I never have been while watching TV.  The last thing I want is to have companies pitch their goods and services to me while I’m in my wonderful-happy-reading place.

This isn’t just speculation on my part.  When I was about eight or nine, I bought a book at a garage sale that hooked me like a fish.  It’s a fairly famous fantasy book, part of a trilogy, which I didn’t know at the time.  All I knew was that from the first sentence, I was in love with that book.  It was an older paperback, and some of you will remember that in the late sixties and early seventies some paperbacks came with advertisements.  Hard cover stock, often in full color, bound into the middle of the book.

This book that I fell in love with had one of those glossy, color ads.  Right in the middle, stuck between two pages of a scene in which the main character came to terms with the fact that she was responsible for the deaths of two men, and that if she didn’t act, she would be responsible for the death of a third.  Very intense reading for a nine-year-old.  Would she save this man, trapped in the dark and afraid?

I turned the page and there.  There was the ad.  For cigarettes.  Ah, yes, those were the days, when you could advertise cigarettes almost anywhere.  Including in books that were on the cusp between young adult/adult.  In a fit of annoyance, I ripped the ad out, but I still remember clearly what brand of cigarettes it was, what the ad looked like.  I still have that book, the cover torn and utterly worn down at the corners, and the spine warped by the little raised ridge of glossy cardstock where I amputated the ad.  Where I declined to be sold to the high bidder.

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