Taggroceries

The spaces between

The freezing rain that was supposed to have ended by now is continuing. The trees look heavy outside, tired from the wet snow over Thanksgiving and now this. Whenever there is ice, the fear creeps back in. Our ice storm was years ago, but the sound of trees breaking apart in the dark remains fresh in my mind.

The next morning, once we saw exactly how much damage there was, we fled with everything we could pile in clothesbaskets, the dog wedged in with the kids in the backseat. We were let through the mostly closed roads because we promised we wouldn’t be back until after everything was cleared. When we returned, five days later, we passed lines of power trucks from all over the country, and wanted to stop and thank each and every one of their crews.

Driving away that first morning, the line between ice and no ice was clear and abrupt. All it took was a slight decrease in elevation, and suddenly we were looking at rainwashed roads and undamaged trees. In the valley, as we wandered through the grocery store, stunned, people chatted about all the normal things, their minds full of the usual business of life, while ours were still frozen, still thinking of power lines crumpled across the pavement, trees bent into tunnels over the roads, the snap and rush and shudder of hidden things falling in the night.

We’ve all played both roles in life. We’ve all been the one suffering silent grief, or fear, or trauma of an endless variety while others pass us by, unknowing. We’ve all been the one brushing shoulders with those suffering, ignorant and content in our lives. I remember reading, and rereading, “Musee des Beaux Arts”, by W.H. Auden, as a teen, being drawn to it because of how it captured that gap, acknowledged it in a way I hadn’t found before.

Of course, we all pass each other knowing so little of the cogs and wheels that tick inside. It’s not just the major tragedies, in fact, it’s not just tragedy. The person in the grocery store may be full of joy, not sorrow. If they stop to pick up the pen you’ve dropped, it’s just as possible that they do so to share their happiness as it is that sadness has taught them the necessity of kindness.

Or perhaps it’s just manners, and you’ll both go on your way, the moment one of many forgotten over the course of a day. There’s no way to know without questioning, and who stops to ask someone why they would pick up a dropped pen, rather than just thanking them?

For me, that’s part of the magic of fiction. I can store up all those little sparks and come home and write. I can calculate the distance between one person and the next, find the shortcuts between them. It is, for those of us drawn more to listening than to speaking, a way to share the things we’ve seen, the ice and the tired power crews running the wires to turn our lights back on, while others continued with their lives.

Familiar faces

(I wrote the following post for a friend who wanted to hear this story.)

Working on novels is very different than working on short stories. (For me–I’m compelled to add that qualifier, always, because I don’t claim to know how anyone else’s head works.) The sheer volume of time I spend with the characters means my relationship to them is stronger, more complicated. There were times with The Lost that I felt as though my main characters were with me all the time. In the backseat of the car, for example, like three troublesome kids.

Which is all fine and good. The scary thing is when they cross that line between imaginary and flesh and blood.

A few years back, around winter holiday time, I went to a chain bookstore. I got in line for the register, not paying much attention, as usual. When it was almost my turn I looked up.

Crap.

It’s one thing to write a monster–a man whose obsessive desires and sense of privilege justify a range of cruelty. It’s quite another thing to have him sell you a book.

I crossed my fingers that I’d get the nice college woman instead. I didn’t. I looked very carefully at the man’s name tag when I came to the register. It wasn’t the name I’d written. He was just a guy selling books, a bored one at that, but the tilt of his head, his features, his attitude…it was him. I scooted out of the store. It’s not as though you can say to stranger in a bookstore, hey, do you carry a knife, by any chance?

I saw him one other time. Never again after that. I hadn’t thought about him in a long time. Not until a couple months back, when I ran into Juno Stuart in the grocery store.

Now, I can’t tell you much about who bookstore guy reminds me of, because that gives away some things in Wren. Juno isn’t such a secret. She’s driven, and charismatic, and intensely physical. If someone were going to make the leap from imagination to tangible form, it would be Juno.

And apparently she likes trail mix.

I’m tall for a woman. I can’t easily hide in a small grocery store. If I could have, I would have followed her the whole time. As it was, I watched her check out trail mix while I pretended to be checking out tortilla chips instead of her. She acted like she didn’t care. Like Juno would have acted.

And that was it. She was there, she bought her trail mix, she was gone.

That’s the way novels go. They pull you in to the world as you write, and it’s hard to walk away from it. It’s very much like reading as a kid–that sense that if you just look hard enough you’ll find your way through the wardrobe (if only you could find a wardrobe). Some little piece of your mind devotes itself to that search, always tuned outward, like SETI, and every now and then it goes bing. There’s always an explanation–in a college town you see so many people come and go that you can spot just about anyone–but it’s fun to feel that thrill.

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