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Washburn (working title): Chapter One Part 1

by christievan 

Posted: 15 February 2009
Word Count: 2246
Summary: This is the first few pages of my novel - chapter one. Ultimately, the story is about a family who return in desperation to the tiny timber town in the Oregon Cascade mountains where the parents grew up. First person protagonist is oldest daughter Goldie, 16 years old, who's coming of age will be the backbone of the novel.

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My mother would hang her buff-colored uniform on the back of the bathroom door every evening after work. On a wire hanger, she draped the collar of the plain, button-up dress with a rinsed pair of dark nude hose, cotton briefs, and the lifeless, beige bra she always wore. She stepped out of the same black rubber-soled shoes worn by all women responsible for cleaning up other people’s messes, and positioned them just outside the door. The next morning’s hot shower smoothed the wrinkles from her clothes, releasing the worst of the soap stains and dust which she scrubbed from the skirt with the edge of a damp towel. Thinking of her, even now, summons remembered odors of industrial disinfectant, the hot, musty reek of vacuum bags, and her own soft body odor, which permeated every bathroom in every apartment we had lived in, no matter which hotel in whatever town had hired her.
She preferred highway franchises, which specialized in one night stays and a minimum of frills. She could memorize just one room and know them all, counting the steps between stairwells and supply rooms, relying on twenty years of muscle memory to tell her when a toilet had been scrubbed clean. Her sense of smell was impeccable and she knew enough, when in doubt, to be generous with the pine-scented disinfectant. When the bed corners weren’t perfect or she missed a few condiment packets left on a bedside table, no one complained. Picking through the big housekeeping cart by touch, she carefully positioned the little bottles and squares of soap on identical bathroom counters, leaning in close when she knew she was alone to make sure the labels were facing outward. She kept to herself, politely refusing when the other women offered a cigarette or to share the small valuables left behind by traveling salesmen, truck drivers, and drug addicts. No one was to know. Even at home she pretended, avoiding our eyes and guiding herself through the kitchen with discreetly outstretched fingers. To amuse each other, Fawn and I occasionally made faces at her across the dinner table, stifling wicked laughter behind our hands, feeling immediately ashamed by her serene, unaffected smile.
I would learn later that color was the first thing to go, then definition and depth. I tried to imagine what she could see, closing my eyes halfway to produce blurred and shadowy outlines of the world, stumbling down the dimmed hallway with my hands outstretched. As I grew older and more observant, her pale eyes seemed to grow smaller behind the thick glasses she no longer needed but wore out of habit. Her milky pupils reminded me of the last image on the television when it was powered off, the cooling tube narrowing into a pinprick of light before fading, slowly, to black. The knowledge of it was a grinding, urgent presence that, for her sake and our own, we ignored.
And then it happened one bright morning in July, on a day so blue and fine you didn’t need to see them to know that the lilacs were blooming. Darrell was out of work and like Fawn, slept late. I could hear his hangover snores coming from the back bedroom as I threw off the covers of the bottom bunk and pushed Fawn’s limp hand, which dangled from the top bunk, out of my face. I hated the long summer days and wished I could stave off consciousness like my sister, but found the Texas heat more unbearable than the empty hours of mid-morning. We’d never lived so far south before, and I had spent the last nine months longing for the shitty townships of the Pacific Northwest, places that, the year before, I’d have ranked just this side of hell. I pulled a clean T-shirt from the pile of folded clothes on the closet floor and felt around the windowsill for the loose change I’d stripped from my pockets the night before. With a few more bottles I could swing a jumbo Icee at the Circle K. Sticky and parched, I shuffled toward the kitchen for a glass of water and nearly fell over the ugly black shoes sitting outside the bathroom door. I stopped to stare at them and saw a sliver of florescent light where the door met the carpet.
She was sitting on the edge of the bathtub. The cheap plastic shower curtain had been ripped from most of the metal rings on the rod and hung limply behind her. Her dress, which was embroidered with her name in curling cursive letters just above her heart, hung open to the navel, revealing the worn waistband of her underwear and the snagged cups of her bra. She had been in the process of putting on her nylons. A vial of clear nail polish sat near the sink, and I wondered if she had felt a run forming beneath her sensitive fingers, had heard the soft pop as the fibers split and chased each other toward her knees. One thin leg was sheathed while the other gleamed pale and uncovered in the harsh bathroom lights. As if she had torn them from her face, I spotted her thick glasses protruding from the dusty shadows beneath the toilet, and bent, automatically, to pick them up. Her eyes were as wide as I had ever seen them, reflecting everything in the room in their huge glassy pupils which, when she heard me turn the knob, aimed themselves at my neck.
“Mom?” I said, to help her identify me. She started at my voice and pulled her dangling arms up, wrapping them around her. It took longer to master her face, and for what seemed like a long time, I watched her lips stretch and wobble as she bared her teeth, clenched her jaw, battling with some primitive impulse she fought to keep in check. I stood, horrified, unable to look away though everything in my body insisted I should not see this, would not later be able to forget. Finally, nearly grunting with the effort, she closed her eyes and the anguished expression faded, leaving the smooth, blank half-smile I knew so well, her cheeks as soft and shiny as a baby’s.
“I can’t—“ she said, stopping herself from saying it aloud.
“It’s okay,” I said. I took the navy blue housecoat from the peg on the door and draped it over her shoulders. I brought up her hands to clutch at the collar of the housecoat at her neck, finding them heavy and soft with the thick cream she used to soothe her bleach-chapped knuckles. The question occurred to me just before I pulled her to her feet, and would stay with me. What had it been? The flesh-toned blur of her face in the mirror, the sour-smelling stockings still bunched in one hand, the square of sky peeping from the shower’s tiny ventilation window? Would it be important later, however indistinct and formless, the last thing she had seen? “It’s okay,” I said again. “I can.”
• • •
Even if I hadn’t understood before, I saw that morning that she’d been running from it for years, had never really prepared herself for what she must have known was inevitable. I dialed the number when she asked me to, and listened as she explained to her boss at the Coach House Inn that she wouldn’t be able to work, blaming a stomach bug. A couple of days, she said, rest and fluids will do the trick. So sorry to be a burden. I made her a cup of tea and some toast and took the seat opposite her at the kitchen table.
“I can fix the shower curtain.” I said, not knowing how to begin. “With a hole punch.”
She nodded and blew softly into her cup.
“Did you fall? I didn’t hear…”
“I just lost my balance.” She attempted something like a shrug but shivered at the same moment, jerking like a fish. I froze, watching as she rubbed her arms to warm them, thinking wildly of car accident victims and the mentally retarded, disabled women dragging their limbs and drooling. I knew a moment of purely selfish fear—white canes and mumbling, head-weaving inattention. A brain tumor? Half of her face paralyzed, scooping up her food with dirty fingers.
“How bad is it?”
“Goldie,” she said, in a controlled, if reproving, tone of voice. As if I had asked about her bowel health or the checkbook balance. Aloof and reassuring. “I just need a few days.”
“Maybe you should see someone?” It was an empty gesture. I knew we didn’t have money for a real doctor and that she would refuse outright to be driven to the free clinic downtown. Nothing they could do, I knew she’d say.
“No.” She stared in the direction of the window, and I wondered if she could feel the morning light on her face, if she could see something of the hot glow through the horizontal blinds. She always insisted on one hundred watt bulbs blazing in every lamp and fixture during the waking hours, a habit that prompted daily argument from Darrell, who regularly suffered from early morning sensitivity to light. With enough illumination, she could be very convincing. It was one of the many ways she had learned to hide from us.
I stirred my bowl of cereal and thought about my dead grandmother, the last time we’d visited, when I was eight years old. Darrell had taken off somewhere, scared out of town for a few days following a mysterious altercation with a downstairs neighbor, and Mom used the grocery money to buy the bus fare to Washburn. We walked the three miles from the station to the squat, fir-shaded house where Mom had grown up, standing for a moment in the gravel driveway while she scrubbed our faces with a tongue-wetted Kleenex and begged us to be good. Her mother, a shriveled, distantly-German woman we were bidden to call Oma, was the type of woman who enjoyed widowhood, organ music, and still believed plastic was poisonous. She squinted out through the rusty screen before flicking the iron hook loose from the eye that secured it and standing aside.
It was a week of hard, aniseed cookies and bedtime devotionals. Long hours spent in the cushionless wooden pews of the Bethlehem Lutheran Church inhaling the noxious tang of burnt coffee, furniture polish, and wilting Carnations; roast suppers in Oma’s bleak sit-in kitchen; stretches of silence punctuated only by the shrieking kettle and trapped house flies. It wasn’t that she was cruel or intentionally unkind. Only that she’d already been an old woman when she first became a mother, a change of life baby they called it, and had raised the girl alone after her husband died. She was accustomed to the benign neglect that had flowed for years between them, and could muster only indolent affection for her granddaughters.
It took us days to realize she was completely blind. The disease that she’d passed on to our mother worked slowly, allowing her to memorize normal routes—through the close hallways of the house, to and from the church and small grocery store on the corner. It wasn’t until Fawn spilled a tin full of buttons on the floor that we knew the truth. Oma had nearly fallen, skidding dangerously on the scattered buttons as she made her way from the back bedroom to the kitchen. Her wrath had been terrible. I remembered damp, slanting eyes darting toward the corners of the sagging sockets, as if hoping to find a spot on her retina left undamaged through which she could locate our faces to slap. Even after the news of her death reached us less than a year later, I found it difficult to feel anything but repulsion for the old woman and her empty black eyes.
Sitting at the table that morning, I tried to imagine that fierceness within my mother, the stranglehold on dignity. Both parents had to carry the gene. I’d read it in a book somewhere, but Darrell refused to believe it. Mom claimed that we had been spared, saved by Darrell’s hardy German genes, dark blond hair and dark eyes—as if to say she had made one good decision, whatever we might think of all the others. Even though we always tested twenty-twenty in the cramped school nurse’s office, we regularly examined each other’s brown irises, searching for the presence of our mother’s pale shadow there.
“There’s nothing to worry about,” Mom said, brushing non-existent crumbs from the table.
“Shouldn’t we talk about this?”
“Talk about what?” She said, and smiled. Pulling the robe closer around her, she stood up and walked purposefully toward her bedroom, her left hand touching a lamp, the far wall, and the closet doorknob as she went. She turned slightly before disappearing into the dark hallway, not bothering to flip the light switch. That’s when I knew. “Let’s give it a couple of days, okay?” She meant, for as long as she could manage. She meant, what’s the alternative? She meant, we both know how this will end. I nodded before realizing that the gesture would be lost on her. But she seemed to understand, to sense my compliance, and crept toward the back of the house as before. I wasn’t sure what shamed me more: that I went along with it, or that she knew I would.

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Comments by other Members

NMott at 00:49 on 16 February 2009  Report this post
Very good.

My only suggestion concerns the scene with the mother and Goldie in the bathroom, which could be a little clearer. There is a lot of description in there, so it's not imediately clear what has happened to the mother. I weouldn't like to have to choose what should go since it is all well written, but it could be reduced; maybe have a bit more dialogue.

One tiny thing:

when she heard me turn the knob, aimed themselves at my neck.

You've switched from Goldie's to the mother's the point of view (pov) here. It's best to stick with Goldie's pov since that's the one you've started with.

GregCaje at 12:53 on 26 February 2009  Report this post
Excellent bit of writing and looking forward to reading more.

One sentence at the very onset gave me trouble:

Thinking of her, even now, summons remembered odors of industrial disinfectant, the hot, musty reek of vacuum bags, and her own soft body odor, which permeated every bathroom in every apartment we had lived in, no matter which hotel in whatever town had hired her.

the odors didn't match up for me in that the second has more to it then the rest of your list. I would change to:

Even now thinking of her summons memories of the odors of industrial disinfectant, musty vaccum bags and her own soft body odor which permeated every bathroom in every apartment we had ever lived in.

Just my preference. As this is the only line I have a mark by, I can seen you had me from the start and I spent the rest of the time enjoying what you read.

Keep at it.


samaka at 02:41 on 11 April 2009  Report this post
I really like your style, I can visualise the characters and it flows very well. The only line I found a bit strange was this one:

when she heard me turn the knob, aimed themselves at my neck.

look forward to reading more of your writing,


BigSmile at 13:22 on 16 April 2009  Report this post

This is a very polished piece of writing - I noticed no typos or grammatical errors.

I too found that it wasn't immediately clear what had happened to her mother in the bathroom scene, however I'm not sure that that's necessarily a problem - it makes the brain work to unravel the clues - at first I thought she'd died or had a stroke and I read on eagerly to see if I was right.

There's not really anything else I can say about it - it flows well and I got a good sense of the characters.

I look forward to reading more.


Xena at 22:14 on 01 May 2009  Report this post
Hi Christie,

I can say without exaggeration this is one of the most powerful pieces of writing I've ever read. It's so intense and intimate, that it can never fail to have a profound effect on the reader.

If you're still working on it, I do have a few points to note, but it's only a technical stuff.

I think that the fact that her illness was not indentified from the very beginning seriously interfered with the flow of the piece. I understand the desire to be smooth and subtle, and not to spoon-feed the reader with the information, but I think this is one of those cases when a bit of clarity wouldn't be out of place.

When you explain why she preferred highway franchises, it doesn't really occur that her eyesight was failing her. There are little hints strewn here and there, but it's not possible at this stage to link them together into a full picture.

No one was to know.

That was when I thought for the first time that she had a health problem. I couldn't figure out what exactly. I thought it was a terminal illness. When I was reading the scene in the bathroom, to start with I actually thought she was dying, rather than losing her eyesight.

She kept to herself, politely refusing when other women offered a cigarette or to share the small valuables left behind...

I still don't understand why. Presumably, it would betray her problem. But how? I must be missing something here. Is it because she wouldn't see where to grab? If so, perhaps it's possible to elaborate on it.

I knew a moment of purely selfish fear.

I'd say 'had' a moment. Because 'knowing' something usually means you have experienced it more than once in the past. As far as I can judge, you only describe one single moment here, which was never repeated.

When you reminisce about the grandma and then go back to the story of the mother, the transition is not very apparent. It's difficult to see when the grandmother's story ends and the mother’s begin.

I hope that was helpful. It's a great work. It was pleasure to read it.


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