Monday, October 23, 2006

Before and After

These few hours in Portland this weekend have changed my life.

Part of my post-divorce, cliche-ridden search for myself included a drawing class at a local college. There I learned that my life-long inability to draw was not the failure of eye-hand coordination I'd imagined it to be. No, it was a failure to observe, deeply observe, that led to my inability to recreate.

My teacher, Jennifer Lauck showed me the same holds true for writing. God truly is in the details. So is the story.

We workshopped a story from the blog. The before is here. This is the after. (Most of it, anyway. I didn't get all the way through the story for the workshop. Still, the part that's finished certainly demonstrates the power of Jennifer's teaching.)


I know he‘s there. I can’t see him, but I can feel him lurking in the shadows on the far side of the staircase. A sour pickle feeling ripples across my shoulders and down my arms. Every hair stands at attention, and I know.

The clock permanently ticking in my head tells me it’s about three in the morning. Maybe if I breathe slowly and keep rolling paint onto the dining room ceiling, he’ll go back to his room.

Szzzzz—Urrrrr. Szzzzzz—Urrrr. Back and forth, back and forth goes the roller, spreading bright paint and dim hope.

The roller’s trail gets sketchy, and I return it to the paint tray on the top step, the fuzzy part in the paint well and the handle carefully balanced on the edge. I shift my weight to my left leg and lean into the rickety top step. My unrestrained left boob bobbles into the tray, creating a white bullseye just above my heart.

That’s me, I think, a walking, talking target.

Outside, the world is insulated by a thick comforter of snow that softens the edges of the Kentucky limestone hemming the borders of my new gardens. That stone is a picture of my life with Bill. We live in Minnesota, where native stone is both abundant and lovely—the soft grays and mottled purples of river rock from the North Shore, for example. Still, nothing would do but that we import this stone. We paid not only for its sharp, hand-cut edges, but for the horse it rode in on. Well, the huge red semi-trailer truck and its slow talking, slow moving driver who charged by the hour as he spun tall tales and dumped tons of rock onto the front yard.

The bearnings of the roller frame squeal in protest. Maybe they’re tired, too.

Here in the dining room there’s nothing but me, my painting tools and supplies, and an urgent need for change. Tonight, I'm painting the ceiling. Soon I'll cover the blue walls with glossy black, obliterating his favorite color, erasing the traces of his presence.

In front of me, the darkened bay windows reflect Evan crouched on the stairs, just beyond the bleary circle of light cast by the shrouded chandelier. His newly thick gut strains at the front of a black Guns and Roses t-shirt, his fish-belly white legs stick out of sky-blue flannel boxers. I bought those boxers for him at The Gap a million years ago, back when we could still laugh together at cartoon penguins decked out in red-and-white hats and scarves.

Little Evan floats up behind my eyes. Three years old, he's wearing a gray sweatshirt with a turquoise Care Bear appliquéd on the front. Wish Bear, I think it is—the one with a cloud and a rainbow on its tummy.

He usually hated new clothes, but he pulled that shirt over his head the minute I finished the last stitch, before I’d even had a chance to clip any hanging threads or press the appliqué one last time. For as long as he could get it over his head, he wore that shirt nearly every day, relinquishing it only when the Bear needed a bath.

There, in my memory, he wears the Wish Bear sweatshirt and a smile that reaches beyond his lips, beyond his cheeks, all the way to the center of his being. His blue eyes, the sparkliest eyes I’ve ever seen, dance with delight and his feet do the same. His little body can scarcely contain the joy of the slightest thing—a leaf falling into the wagon as I pull him along the driveway, the wind in his face as I roller skate behind the stroller, playing hide-and-seek with a sock or a washcloth. He squirms and wriggles as his giggles launch themselves into the air, shimmering crystalline motes keeping time to a melody he alone can sing.

From the stairs, the whisper of cotton on flannel on skin tells me he’s moving. Standing, now.

Just keep painting, I tell myself. Just keep painting.

I can’t see them, but I know the look in his eyes: tiny, venom-filled pupils surrounded by flat, expressionless blue. No more dancing. No more joy. Only anger. Only hate.

As my arms move forward and back, forward and back, a familiar burn courses across my shoulders. Every muscle and sinew thrums with tension, vibrates with the effort of holding my fear in place. Every moment of every day, a cold flood of panic threatens to force its way up from my gut and out of my mouth in screams that will never stop if they find an opening in the ties that bind me together by a thread. By one thread.

A deep breath whistles through the gap at the front of his mouth where his front teeth once sat. The hiss tells me he’s taken out the flipper again. Damn it. How long will we look for it this time? He hates wearing it and won’t go to school without out it. Rock? Meet Hard Place. You guys are going to know each another well.

“Arf, arf, Mom. You really are a dog,” Evan’s low voice whips out of the shadows, hitting his target, dead center.

I drop the roller and grab the step to steady myself. The metal roller clatters on the hardwood, the plastic handle skids across the floor. Another mess to clean up.

“No wonder my dad left you.”

My hands. Just look at my hands. My fingernails are ragged, bitten off wherever they break or tear. Nearly every finger sports a hangnail, some bitten off so far back they bled, which explains the crusts of dried blood here and there. My cuticles haven’t been tended since Jesus was a baby and my skin is so dry it’s drawn up into maps of the strange land in which I now find myself.

I loosen my grip on the step and deliberately construct a neutral expression before turning to face him. (First survival rule: Never let an angry 11 year old see you sweat.)

“Evan, if you ever turn the force of your imagination to good, there’ll be no stopping you.” I’m proud of how even—almost cheerful—my voice sounds. “That may be the most inspired bit of meanness I’ve ever heard!”

Off the steps now, Evan slouches into the room. His bare feet slap the hardwood as he walks. Stomps, really: anger on the hoof. His light brown hair is standing up every which direction, a collection of cowlicks, a concert of chaos. The skull on his shirt gleams white, the roses bleed red. How I wish for a rainbow.

“Well, it’th true. You’re fat and you’re ugly and your hair ith awful.” The cavernous hole between his teeth swallows his s’s.


Mystic Wing said...

I liked the first version, but this one is even more powerful. God is in the details. So is the devil. The workshop must have been a good one. Can't wait to read more.

Suzy said...

I remember reading the first one. Amazing. This one...stunning, simply stunning. The sounds, the details of fabric, paint roller and of the stones, "We paid not only for their sharp, hand-cut edges, but for the horse they rode in on." Incredible line.
Incredible writing, incredible you. This is writing. Never ever doubt your writing again.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic work. If I read this on the back of a book I would buy it. I'm glad you had such a fantastic time at your workshop:)

Michelle O'Neil said...

Oh Jerri. The reader feels the whole thing. Great work! Fantastic.

~NanCourt~ said...


i mean, well...

you got me hooked......


Carrie Wilson Link said...

Jerri - When the student is ready, the master appears. You, sweet friend, were ready.

Prema said...

I feel honored to have witnessed the unfolding - I saw apprehension turn to joy. And fast!

JessPDX said...

That's amazing... It inspires me to see what I can do with my writing... I want to read more of your story. So glad I got to be part of this, too. :)

Ziji Wangmo said...

Wow -
Great writing - intense story.
The work shop must have been a doozy!
I want to

tinker said...

Glad you had such an inspiring workshop experience - it shines through in the details.
It grabbed me and kept me reading to the end (which is saying a LOT right now, as I'm sleep-deprived!)
Now I want to know more about these hurry up and write the book!