A Short Story Collection: From the Heart

It is always a special experience to read something written by a friend. It is even more special to follow the fledgling ideas from Facebook chat and email conversations as they spread their wings and soar across the pages of an honest-to-goodness book. In From the Heart, I was, once again, blown away by the way Jamie approaches heavy, serious, and even dark material with an honesty and humor that makes his characters irresistible. It makes me wonder if all authors put this much of themselves into their stories. Jamie’s gentle way of making you think just a little bit differently, to question a little bit more, to experience the weight of every moment shine through in his collection of short stories.

Two of my favorite stories are contained in this collection, Glasses and Hearts. Reading them again, I found they still raised questions for me, still made me think about them long after I was finished reading. I think I am drawn to these two stories because they focus on what it means to be vulnerable and how we truly connect with others. In this wide, messy world it is so easy to lose sight of the fact that we are all in this together and these stories bring that reality back to the forefront of my mind.

Somehow I always seemed to have my back to the sun anyway.

When I re-read Glasses, I found myself wondering: What if we could see each person we encounter, not as flesh and blood, but as the people they truly are? What if our connections and experiences make a lasting mark on us and someone else could see that mark? And what if we’ve carefully kept ourselves from connections and experiences in order to preserve ourselves, only to discover that isn’t really preservation at all? I discovered the answers to these questions right alongside “Jonas” as he experienced the magic of the glasses and watched the colors come to him.

A little bit of grief, a little solitude, and a dash of could-have-been.

A single drop slid down the side of the glass and fell to the counter; like a lone tear, or a leap of faith.

It had been so long since my first reading of Hearts, that I didn’t remember how it can catch you off-guard. It’s one of those stories whose meaning doesn’t dawn until a few pages in and suddenly your mouth is hanging open and you really have to focus on breathing. Imagine if we walked through this world with our hearts, literally, on our sleeves. What if everyone we met knew what we felt about ourselves, our lives, even about them? And what if we couldn’t recognize the significance of our words without the help of a friendly barkeep who knew how to mix us just the right drink, while fighting off demons of his own?

If you want a quick but meaningful read, a collection of lovely and intentional stories, I highly recommend getting yourself a copy of From the Heart. You won’t regret it!

 

 

 

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An Exercise: Using Character to Produce Frame and Arc

Our “prompt” this week was to write the same scene from two differing viewpoints. A fun and challenging assignment.

Scene 1:

Judy entered the room slowly and gently closed the door behind her, making sure she heard the soft “click” of the knob falling into place. She breathed quietly in through her nose to steady herself and then turned and smiled at Marilyn. As usual, Marilyn was seated serenely behind her large, mahogany desk, not a hair out of place, her posture the envy of British royalty. Judy swallowed hard, suddenly aware of her shabby pantsuit and the fly-away hairs she could see in her peripheral vision. She knew she should have spent a few more minutes getting ready, after all, as Douglas said, a well-put together woman walked with confidence. She would have more confidence if she cared more about such things, she was sure. After all, Douglas was always right about these things. Maybe, if she’d had more confidence, she would still have him, too.

She sat down at the edge of the cushioned chair, making sure not to slouch, smoothing the fabric of her slacks down over her bony knees. She smiled again, an awkward shaped thing, and counted to three while looking Marilyn straight in the eye.

“Hello, again, Dr. Pond. I guess we should get straight to it?” It was always so awkward returning to the therapist’s office. By the time she felt comfortable just talking and sharing, it was time to go and she had to spend the next six days talking herself in to another session.

Marilyn nodded her head and smiled, offering some generic pleasantries and asking a few innocuous questions and Judy responded. Once the social etiquette had been met, Judy began where she had left off last week, with her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Douglas Egan.

“It’s just, I can’t believe it’s really happening. I tried so hard, I really did, to do all the things he wanted me to. And he didn’t really ask a lot, you know. He wanted what was best for me. I know that. A man of his social standing, well, he had appearances to keep. And of course, I didn’t know anything about that life. When we met, I didn’t even know he had that kind of life! I’d always thought we’d settle down upstate somewhere and raise a family.” She stopped for a moment and then, almost to herself “I think he told me he sold insurance…”

She looked up at Marilyn, who was busy writing notes on a yellow legal pad and nodding. Judy wasn’t sure that Marilyn was the best person for her to be speaking to about these things. She’d probably never had a problem satisfying her husband’s expectations; in fact, he’d probably needed to adopt quite a few new skills just to be able to participate in her social circles. She was just the kind of woman that Douglas would have been drawn to, thought Judy. And suddenly, she didn’t like Dr. Pond all that much.

Scene 2:

Marilyn shook herself from her reverie as she heard the door slide open across the carpet of her office. She straightened up in her seat, her shoulders throbbing from hunching over her desk all day. She’d forgotten about Judy Egan, socialite, and immediately wracked her brain for memories of their last session. She should have had the receptionist pull her notes, but then, she should have remembered who her appointments were for the day. Suddenly, Judy was speaking to her and she lifted her eyes, making sure a smile warmed their tired depths.

“Yes, yes, how are you feeling this week, Judy? Have you been getting any sleep?” Their last session had been brief, Judy seemed distracted no doubt planning some charity ball or benefit show and Marilyn hadn’t been able to get to the heart of the issues bothering her. This week, however, Judy was eager to get started and was already chattering on about her husband, Douglas.

As Marilyn listened to Judy describe her life since marrying the wealthy Egan, she couldn’t help but draw parallels between her own failing marriage to Oliver. She reached for a legal pad and tried to focus on what Judy was saying, finding herself increasingly angry at Douglas and frustrated with Judy. She couldn’t understand how such a smart and sophisticated woman had let herself become so enamored with a man who seemed to like nothing about her. And she couldn’t wrap her head around men like Oliver and Egan who thought that money gave them a free pass to degrade the women they claimed to love, requiring more and more of them and then discarding them when they were all used up.

Marilyn realized she was still writing despite the quiet in the office and she looked up to meet Judy’s gaze. She felt her eyes misting over as she looked at her patient, wishing she could reach across the desk and hug her and suddenly realized that she liked Mrs. Eagan very much.

An Exercise: Working with Plot

This week’s assignment was to create two characters, both with clear desires, and pit them against one another. Writers can be evil, can’t they? I hope you enjoy what I came up with!

Maggie had finished loading the dishwasher and was filling the sink with warm soapy water when she realized that Patrick hadn’t headed into the living room to watch Jeopardy but was, instead, puttering about the kitchen and looking at her out of the corner of his eye. When he cleared his throat for the third time without saying anything, she knew that he wanted to talk about something serious. She turned off the tap and moved the kettle onto the front burner, pulling two mugs from the cabinet. As she got the tea ready she wondered if this sudden change in routine had anything to do with the meeting he’d told her about yesterday. Something his boss had wanted to talk to him about. It wasn’t like him to beat about the bush like this, so it must be something significant. She poured the hot water over the tea bags and watched the brown slowly rise through the water.

“Patrick,” she said, holding his mug out to him, “should we sit and chat?”

Patrick felt panic rising as he wrapped his strong hands around the mug and headed through the swinging door into the living room. He knew Maggie wasn’t going to like what he had to say.

They both settled into their matching recliners and Maggie put her mug on an ornate glass coaster she’d gotten from her mum and waited for him to tell her what it was that had him so flustered.

Patrick took a few swigs of tea, swallowing hard as the hot liquid burned his tongue, and a deep breath to steady his nerves. “Mags, I had that meeting I was telling you about yesterday, with Mr. Dillard? Actually, that’s why I was late to dinner. He wanted to talk to me about my retirement, well about something that’s to do with my retirement. The thing is, well, the company wants me to take a position, a supervisor position, actually. So that means when I retire in a few years we’ll have more to work with than we thought.” Patrick stopped talking and took another gulp of his tea. He wasn’t sure where to go from here and he looked over at his wife, sipping her tea and gazing at him thoughtfully.

Maggie wasn’t sure what Patrick was so nervous about. She was proud of his achievements at work and was looking forward to his retirement in a year or two. She was ready to spend her days with him underfoot and the kids and grandkids streaming in and out of the old house, as they did on the weekends. She smiled at him lovingly as he dashed on.

“So, I told him I’d think about it because, of course, I had to talk to you first and, well,” he paused for a moment and then it came out of him, all in a rush, “we’d have to move, Mags.”

Maggie froze; her mug hovered near the middle of her chest, arrested on its return trip to the coaster. She looked blankly at her husband, her brain refusing to process the information he had just relayed. She couldn’t look him in the eye and her breath came quicker as she fought down the pain and confusion and anger that were welling up into her throat. Snapping the footrest of her recliner down suddenly, she launched herself up, banged through the swinging door into the kitchen, and turned on the tap.

Patrick ran his hand over his face as he heard the sound of water running into the kitchen sink. When Maggie was mad, she cleaned and she wouldn’t stop cleaning until she was ready to talk. He left his tea on her coaster and headed upstairs, knowing that pursuing a conversation with her was pointless.

Maggie finished washing the dishes and wiped her hands on the scratchy, red kitchen towel her grandsons had given her for her birthday. It didn’t dry all that much, but it was the thought that counted. She walked slowly through the downstairs, lowering blinds and turning off lights. The house was silent, but not lonely. Each room was full of memories, of laughter, of family, of happiness. She stood at the foot of the stairs, in the dark, and listened to the sound of Patrick’s heavy breathing and occasional snores coming from their room upstairs. Then she climbed heavily past the framed photographs of weddings and birthdays, babies and anniversaries, proms and senior portraits. She peeked in on Liam, fast asleep across his father’s childhood bed, his curls etched in the shadows cast by the nightlight.

She washed her face and brushed her teeth in the chipped porcelain sink in the bathroom before sliding into cool sheets in the guest bedroom. She was calmer now, but she wouldn’t stay calm sleeping next to Patrick. She could hear his muffled snorts and snores as she tossed and turned, trying to silence her brain, trying not to think about what tomorrow would bring.

Patrick woke to the smell of bacon and coffee. It wafted up the stairs, as it did every Saturday. Maggie was up and puttering around downstairs, making breakfast for the kids and grandkids like she did every weekend. They would all be over soon and the house would be full of noise and smiles, just like it used to. Patrick dressed in a hurry, anxious to speak with Maggie before the kids arrived. He trotted downstairs and into the kitchen, nearly colliding with Liam as he ran out to the tire swing.

“Morning, Papa! Bacon’s good!” And he was gone, out the sliding glass door on his way to an adventure.

Patrick stood in the kitchen and watched his wife pull down her mother’s china. It had been handed down ages ago, for special occasions, but Maggie felt that time with family was reason enough to use it and so every family meal was eaten off those flowered plates. She turned to set the table and caught his eye across the kitchen, the tears welling up at once.

“I’m sorry, Maggie. I really am. But it’s move or take early retirement and I just don’t know if we can afford for me to do that.” He waited for her to move, to say something, for a glimpse into what was going on in her mind, in her heart. He needed to know what she thought.

Maggie swallowed the lump in her throat and held out a stack of plates. “We can tell the kids at breakfast,” she said. “When you retire, we can come back. Derek and June will keep it just so for us.”

Patrick took the stack of plates and set them on the counter, turning to wrap Maggie tight in his arms. He felt her heart beating fast against his ribs and smelled the tart, citrus scent of her hair. “Are you sure?” he whispered.

Maggie pulled back to look up at her husband, her arms still around his waist, her fingers interlocking at the small of his back. “I’m sure,” she smiled through the tears. “What’s two or three years in a new place if it means you’ll be around to bother me all day once it’s done? And we’ve always wanted to travel.”

The kids arrived, noisy and scattered, to find the table half set and their parents wrapped in one another’s arms, laughing and crying, in a world of their own.

Copyright © 2015 Katharine Brown.of

Work In Progress

An excerpt from another Mecca of Junk story I’m working on:

It was Saturday and the floors of the shop were packed with weekend tourists and left-over college students. I hadn’t been expecting such a rush, what with the snow and spring break, but the gods of ancient stuff must have been smiling on the Mecca and here I was, coffee in hand, watching old ladies outmaneuver one another with their elbows. It was amusing to watch them fighting so desperately over their figurines and doodads. I wondered if it was their increasing understanding of the coming end that caused them to pursue their treasures with such ferocity. A word to the wise: never, ever get in the way of an old lady who wants a miniature china cat.

I ambled back through the booths, nodding at vendors and picking up the occasional scarf or pillow which had fallen, unseen, into the path of the oncoming shoppers. Everyone seemed happy with the steady stream of customers so I headed back to the register. The line was dwindling down when a small woman in a crocheted sweater scooted to the side of the counter and laid her ice-cold hands on my arm.

“Please,” she said, glancing furtively around, “please, I can’t find my husband anywhere. I think someone took him!”

I snorted. I couldn’t help myself. I covered it with a fit of fake coughing and then waved my boss over to cover the counter. After a short conversation, we realized that the woman was serious and I called the non-emergency police line. Officer Mike Barry, who patrolled the main street in the evenings, assured us that he would be over as soon as possible. He sounded excited, probably hoping someone had kidnapped a little old man. Anything is better than handing out parking tickets and snooping around the walking paths to make sure dog owners clean up after their pets.

I led the little lady towards the office at the back of the first floor, stopping only long enough to refill my coffee. I figured Mike would want to talk to her in private. She sank slowly onto the hard plastic chair which rocked with each shift of her body. She had pulled an embroidered handkerchief from her pocket and was dabbing at her eyes behind her thick-framed glasses. There was a small bubble of mucus that was slowly making its way down her top lip and I found myself mesmerized by the shining trail it left behind, like a slug across cucumbers. She was talking and I nodded, tuning in.

“Jasper and I come here every Saturday,” she said, “ever since we were married. Of course, when he got sick, that made things more difficult – ” She broke off as Officer Barry arrived, hands on his wide utility belt which looked tiny compared to his enormous girth now filling the office doorway.

“You the bird who’s missing her husband?” he asked, gruffly.

I shot him a look. He acknowledged my judgement with a slight coloring of his massive neck and rocked back on his heels.

“No offense,” he added.

 

Copyright © 2015 Katharine Brown.

Book Review: Tenth of December

Tenth of December

I stumbled upon this book by chance. One of the stories from this collection was featured in a list of 18 Perfect Short Stories and everyone I talked to said they’d only heard good things. I made it a goal to read all the collections on the list and let me say, as far as this book is concerned, I was not disappointed. There wasn’t a story in here that I didn’t love, or that I’ll ever be able to forget. Saunders dives straight into the darkest places of the human heart and brings them to light with grace, wit, and humor. He is, without a doubt, one of the best short story writers I have had the pleasure to read and I can’t wait to get my hands on more of his stuff.

There are stories here about everything, love, loss, anger, war, science, relationships, the things that make us human, but there is one common thread that runs through the middle of all of them; the idea of right and wrong and how it relates to humanity. And while you may be shaking your head and saying, every book/story/song is, at its core, about this idea of right and wrong I would encourage you to take a look at morality through Saunder’s eyes. It’s a look at morality as I’ve never seen it before. He tackles the big questions and turns the answers on their heads. Lies become good, when the untruths we tell ourselves keep us from acting upon the deep darkness inside. When one acts out of love, harm becomes a kind of protection. Death is a weapon we use as a reminder of individuality, of choice, of control, of freedom. How hard, how very hard it is to do the right thing. And why it’s so important that we do.

And while you might be thinking, wow, this sounds like a dark read (it is), let me assure you that there is a beauty there as well. Saunders reminds us of the fact that each of us, down underneath all the surface grime, is a beautiful, albeit flawed, soul. A soul who is loved, a soul who feels, a soul who needs, in a world that would stunt all those things. His characters are transparent and honest and tragic, mirrors of our own failings and misconceptions. We have to hope for better for them because, in a way, we are the same. He tells the story of the truths that exist in all of us and, by giving them names, by bringing them to light, he sets us free from them.

This is a book that will make its mark on you. It will change the way you think, the way you look at the world, and maybe even the way you look at yourself. It’s a book we need to read because it’s about being human, in all its triumphant glory and all its sorrowful insignificance and sometimes, we need a reminder about what it truly means to be human.