The "Brit a Day" series

What does a months-long parade of attractive British men have to do with fiction, you might well ask? These gentlemen have inspired some lovely scenes, part of the life I live in my head. Over time, some of these scenes reach out to one another and begin to form a story. For the present, each one of these pictures provides a writing prompt for me, a way to keep me writing with a sense of passion and narrative, even when the stories are not yet fully formed.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Church Cay, the conclusion

Part 12

For a week or so after Frank died, I had one dream over and over again. I would be in a house with immaculate white walls and miles and miles of thick blue carpet. There was furniture, but I could never remember what it looked like. I was wandering this very large house looking for something, I don’t know what, but I knew that if I was to find it, it would have to be inside one of these rooms because outside of every window was the densest green jungle I had ever seen. I woke up one morning after the dream, and something finally occurred to me. It struck me that, in his whole life, Frank had never seen the ocean. Emily was almost eight, and she had never seen one either.

The following month, as soon as Emily’s school let out, we went to Baraterre. Touring around the island the day we arrived, I showed her the sites that represented the beginning of my life. Fat Billy’s was now run by a small Vietnamese woman, and the sight of her made me miss Fat Billy, even though I had never once met him since the age of eleven months. He was a part of that other time that should have just been history to me, but I was always confusing history with memory.

I hired a boat to take us to Church Cay for the day. As Emily and I scrambled up the bluff to the plateau, I watched the boatman reclining with a cigarette in his boat, watching us. “Your father built the shill church, heh?” he had asked me, amused. I wondered if he felt enough ridicule to try to scare us by leaving us stranded. I supposed that my mother had wondered that every day she was here, and she might have sometimes felt the same derision toward my father.

The church was just as I had pictured it at the high end of the island. All its paint had worn off or had been bleached away in the sun, and its bare wood was as gray and tufted as the fur of an animal. It felt like a doll house. Emily tugged on the iron handle of the front door, and the whole structure shook. She pouted and then turned her back on it, running off to explore the ruins of the older houses. I was relieved to have her playing away from the cliff. I stood near the front of the church myself and looked down for the first time at the trench a hundred feet below. Beneath the small crests on the water’s surface, the smoothness of the patch of dark blue surprised me. I knew there was a very old church down there. I pictured its pews, its hymnals, someone’s forgotten Sunday hat. But they had been completely absorbed in the uniformity of that field of blue. Emily hummed happily as she sat braiding leaves next to a grave marker, and it seemed inevitable that the cemetery and all of its contents would be consumed by the trench too. The dead were headed for oblivion, and that made me happy for them. They were in their own vortex, waiting to be dropped out into a strange land for the last time. I decided that I loved the underscaled building that stood before me, the shill church, for its ridiculous appropriateness at being so empty.

Emily was so content playing there that I put off our leaving until I heard the boatman call up to us. On the way back to Baraterre, she sat with one arm around my waist and the other outstretched, her hand cupped to catch the wind. Every few minutes she rushed her hand to her open mouth. She was tasting the air, doing the exact same thing I had taught Jeff to do as a baby on our long Sunday morning car rides to the church where our father would be preaching.

Twelve years have passed since that summer, and now I live in Baraterre. When the men told me that my father’s church had fallen into the ocean, they said that so much of the cliff had eroded that the edge now broke inland right up to the boundary of the old cemetery. I imagine that in a few years, the ancient coffins might come spewing out of the hillside to find their way down onto the rocks below, or if they are lucky, slide right into the trench. The scant human remains will spiral back down to the crude depths of life’s origins, the sea.

This is the story of my life, and I am back where I began. Make something out of it if you can. My story, that is.

The End

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Church Cay, part 11

Part 11

A nurse brought restraints while another injected him with a sedative, and I pleaded with them to let him shout as much as he wanted, but they told me there was no use. They said that reliving some childhood incident was a sure sign that a person’s brain was dying.

Frank was calm after that except for a couple of times that he murmured meaningless phrases. When I felt sure that there would not be another outburst, I decided that it was time for Emily to say good-bye to her father. On that day, I brushed his hair and shaved him. I uncurled his fists myself and laid his hands on top of the covers. His hands were so thin that his wedding ring slipped easily over his knuckle, and I removed it so it wouldn’t get lost in the sheets.

Outside his door, I decided to tell Emily that he might say things or move suddenly and she should not be scared of him, or that he might not show that he knew she was there at all. But she needed to tell him that she loved him, I explained, because he should hear it from her before he died. Then I told her, say anything you want to him, Sweetheart, because he just wants to know you’ll remember him.

I found a stool for her to stand on, and when she did, she leaned over Frank’s face and said matter-of-factly and rather loudly, “I love you, Daddy—I love you.” After that she rubbed noses with him and kissed him on the mouth, and then she sat down on the stool and took his hand. She sat like that, telling him what her days had been like recently and about her pals from next door. When she ran out of stories about her playmates, she laid her cheek on his hand and sat without making a sound until it was time for us to go home.

Frank died one morning before I got to his room. I asked for a few minutes alone with him, and the nurse sympathetically obliged me. When she left the room, I felt behind Frank’s neck for the ties of his hospital gown and then pulled it down so I could touch his bare shoulders and chest. Frank had the most beautiful shoulders, and they were always soft-skinned and white because, no matter how hot it got, he wore a T-shirt in the sun. I laid my hand on the side of his neck until the skin was quite warm, and then I kissed the place where my hand had been.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Day of the Locomotive

I am a steam punk. I like things that are big and loud and, where appropriate, Victorian. I have paid good money to get into tractor pulls, and when I didn’t have the money, I watched through chinks in the wall. In the days before airports were warzones, I’d stand in the bed of my pickup truck at the business end of Lindbergh Field and imagine I could stroke the bellies of ascending planes. I like machines that are clumsy and elegant at the same time. Hulking behemoths as delicate as a Swiss watch. Metal and oily exhaust. Bellicose, quarrelsome, cantankerous, and precise.

As I drove home from work yesterday, almost to my exit, I saw a train stopped on the tracks paralleling the freeway. This isn’t unusual since my neighborhood has a lay-by for passing trains. But there were people and police cars hanging around the locomotive, and at first glance I was afraid there had been a horrible accident. There was something weird about the engine, smoke curling away from the top—my god, it was a steam engine. Not only that (by now I was off the freeway, heading for the frontage road) it was a steam engine pulling a train of 22 vintage Pullman passenger cars.

Apparently a group of private railcar owners was having its annual gathering in LA. They chartered an antique steam engine to take them daytripping from Union Station to San Diego, and the Pullmans were parking in our siding for the day. The locomotive was soon detached from the train and before I could get parked and down to the siding, it motored off South to an Amtrak station to be picked up by a diesel engine that would take it back north of its own passenger cars in the lay-by. That was the beginning of its four hour odyssey to and from a turntable, prepping it for its return trip to LA.

I summoned my husband and kids at about the first half-hour mark, and the wait for the steam engine to return was excruciating. I really thought nothing could be worth the effort it was taking to stave off fatal boredom. I worried what the kids would think when it was all over and they had spent their whole Sunday on a weedy dirt bank. I apologized to my husband for no reason.

Then it came. It came backing down the track with the two diesel engines that power-assisted amenities like lights and AC for the passengers. At last it slid into the coupling of the last Pullman car. It was ferocious and complicated and enormous, but it could move an inch at a time.

I won’t try to describe it. (Its wheels were 80 inches in diameter.) I don’t have to tell you if it was worth it. At this point either you’re with me or you aren’t. The steam engine stayed in our humble siding for the next hour while the Pullmans’ combined crews got the passenger cars powered up. I could have let my eyes wander its surface of glossy geometry and grainy curves for the entire time, but my son insisted that we stay poised at a distance down the track that would allow us to see the massive pistons and wheels at speed when the train finally left. (Good call.)

It was an amazing day. Something I couldn’t have planned and would never have committed to even if I could have planned it. There were instances when the anticipation and awe I felt toward that locomotive must have been identical to what someone would have felt a hundred years earlier the first time a steam engine came into their world. I think yesterday was no different than a day at the beach—a full day spent in anticipation of something looming just beyond the horizon (it was always supposed to be here any minute), and when the thing arrived, kind of like the way it feels to look at the ocean, it brought a raging stillness.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Church Cay, part 10

Part 10

When Emily was seven, Frank had a massive brain hemorrhage. By that time, Grandfather had passed away, and we were living in his old house down the road from Frank’s parents. But on this evening, Emily and I were fixing dinner with Frank’s mom in her kitchen when the men came in for the day. Frank said that he had a bad headache and wanted to lie down upstairs in his old room. At dinner time, I looked for Emily to send her upstairs to get her daddy, but she had run outside to play with a neighbor’s child. I found Frank lying strangely unconscious, clearly not just asleep, curled up on his side. He had vomited on the pillow next to him.

He lay in a coma in the hospital for five weeks. Some days I would find him in the fetal position, his fists clinched like paws and drawn up to his neck, but when the nurses came in to change his bedclothes, they would always help him onto his back and lay his arms beside him so that he looked like he was sleeping. On the seventh day after the hemorrhage, he sprang into violent activity while I was sitting next to his bed. His eyes opened wide, his brown irises razor-thin like a madman’s. He screamed and sobbed as though he were being tortured, or worse, utterly forsaken. He cried out just one word that I could understand, “Mama! Mama!” deepening my horror that he could not perceive anything now but total abandonment.

to be continued

Thursday, September 4, 2008

For Scott

Church Cay, part 9

Part 9

We never talked about God, and I was almost sure that Frank was an atheist, even after he told me his grandfather was a priest. If he had ever asked me, I would have told him without hesitating that even if God existed, I would reject Him. But now I don’t think Frank would have agreed with me. He held peacefully onto a belief he never spoke of. I could always tell by the way he moved when he was physically tired from farming that he counted on his strength to come from something beyond his body. I began to imagine what he felt when the fields were waist-high with wheat and my own body was exhausted from the last months of pregnancy. The summer winds made depressions in the bronze grass like giant, restless lovers rolling on a bed of satin sheets. If this invisible force were the hand of God, I thought, running its fingers with so much love through the hair of its only child, I would let it caress my entire being.

My baby Emily reminded me so much of my brother Jeff that I missed him more than ever. She took in the whole prairie with her eyes the way Jeff had as a baby in my eight-year-old arms. She let herself see things that adults don’t believe they can see, believing instead that the thing before them is just too big to be comprehended, so they stop looking. She noticed every bit of movement and pointed at every piece of machinery in the fields, identifying them all as he daddy. Watching her, I imagined myself in my mother’s arms on Baraterre experiencing the ocean. I thought sometimes that I could remember the blue of the ocean even though I knew that was impossible. In that false memory, the prairie must have been my ocean, the golden color of the waves recorded for some reason in its negative, blue.

to be continued

Monday, September 1, 2008

Church Cay, part 8

Part 8

We were married by his widowed grandfather, a retired Episcopal priest, at what had once been his little church in the middle of the vast prairies of North Dakota. We risked a lot traveling that distance to be married at the end of February, given what the weather could have done, but we didn’t want to wait until spring. Frank was particularly concerned that we marry before I started showing, although by the time we got there, his whole family knew that I was pregnant and didn’t seem to mind. I think Frank was worried that I would be embarrassed later by our wedding pictures if I was visibly with child. Frank was like that, the kind of man who would anticipate how other people might hurt themselves, no matter how slightly, and then do everything in his power to save them.

My mother rode with us to North Dakota on the bench seat of Frank’s pickup truck. We gathered in the church on a Thursday morning, the two of us, my mother, Frank’s mother and father, and his little brother. Outside the sky was clear and aquamarine as ribbons of cream-colored light and ochre shadows snaked through the fields of waving winter grasses on a mild breeze, but in his parents’ car on the way to the church, the radio had said it was nine below zero.

“Her hands are like ice!” Frank said as our families stepped to each side, leaving us standing alone before Grandfather’s open book of prayer. He rubbed my hands quickly but gently, and I thought of the glasses he’d washed and dried a hundred times each at the bar and had never broken one. The hand rubbing warmed my whole body, and I felt like I was floating in warm water while my mother’s lace wedding dress began to lose its starch and swirl around me. Frank put his hand firmly on the back of my arm, thinking, he told me later, that I’d looked like I was going to faint.

In a couple of days, we sent my mother home on the bus, but Frank and I had decided by then to stay. I wanted to have our baby there with his family, and there was plenty for him to do to help his dad make the farm ready for the spring planting of wheat.