Two, or was it three, years ago I was admitted to an MFA programme in creative writing at American College in Dublin. I wanted to go because I respected the people who taught it, but my mother’s accident, then her death, then the tenant catastrophe of the past six months have all prevented my enrolling. The college, ever considerate, has delayed my enrolment but I have begun to wonder in the morass of life being consumed by the living of it whether it is something I could do.
To test myself I have taken Ray Bradbury’s advice in Zen and the Art of Writing “Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row” which, inevitably, has a very nice Facebook page devoted to it: Ray Bradbury’s 52 week short story challenge to aspiring writers.
The idea for this story, marking the beginning, comes from the American writer Alice Adams’s story Roses, Rhododendron combined with an exercise from What if…. exercises for fiction writers by Bernays and Painter. The exercise tells you to write the opening sentence of a story, then write a second sentence containing at least two elements/words from the first, the third repeating the elements of the second and so on.
It is an enlightening lesson in technique and, while I don’t think what I did with it is a success, today is my posting deadline and I am comforted by David Bayles and his invaluable Art and Fear “You make good work by (among other things) making lots of work that isn’t very good, and gradually weeding out the parts that aren’t good, the parts that aren’t yours. It’s called feedback, and it’s the most direct route to learning about your own vision. It’s also called doing your work. After all, someone has to do your work, and you’re the closest person around.”
It is not that I believed the Ouija board. Does anyone over the age of eight and under the age of eighty believe a Ouija board? I was neither under eight or over eighty when my husband ran off at the muddy end of a Massachusetts winter with someone seventeen years my junior. I was the magical four-0 and at seventeen years younger than me the spring chicken was old enough to know what she was doing, but I didn’t. I mean I didn’t know what I should do.
One thing I knew I wasn’t doing, was putting up the shutters and mourning. My daughter, ten at the time, didn’t believe the Ouija board either but using it showed her, I hope it showed her, that I was trying to do something, for god’s sake, anything.
I’m not sure how the Ouija ended up spelling out that we should, like my erstwhile but not former husband, go South. South to the Carolinas where I’d never been or thought of going. Honestly, I’m not sure it spelled Carolinas or even Carolina at all. Carolinas might have just been the closest word to sense that came out of those sessions in which I held one side of the last of my wedding present Waterford Crystal white wine glasses and my daughter held the other while we burned a long white candle in the semi-dark. Semi-dark because part of the money my husband used for his flit south — New Orleans to be exact— had been destined to be pay for our heat and light.
If your husband spent the heat and light money on his paramour seventeen years your junior and if you and your child are living in the semi-dark, it is much easier to do it in the South than in New England even at the tail end of winter, even when it is coming up to mud season.
In spite of the general ease of life and the lack of anything you could really call a winter to have a tail end, I wasn’t certain I liked the South once we got there. I didn’t like the softness of Southern people who seemed sapped by their serene air and their languid streams and their big leaf plants nodding in the perpetual warmth.
I bought my daughter a bicycle which she rode past the streams, muddy like home, and the big leafed plants and came upon some of those soft people that she liked in a farmhouse that had a vegetable garden and chickens to feed. The soft people — lawyer husband, book reviewing wife, and their daughter as dark as mine was blonde — took her in. After awhile it felt like that family didn’t take her in, but took her away to their life of book reading, vegetables planting, and chicken feeding.
While my daughter read books and fed chickens, I drove around the country buying antiques. I arranged the antiques tastefully on the sun porch where people driving past, mostly Northerners, could see them and would stop to buy. In spite of the Northerns admiring the items on my porch and enough money to keep the lights turned on, the truth was I still didn’t know what I should be doing.
Every once in a while, I would dim lights, light a white candle and take that last one of the wedding present white wine glasses off the shelf and sit down to the Ouija board by myself. It didn’t work because it wasn’t the Ouija I wanted. Instead of the Ouija, I wanted a magic mirror like the wicked queen in Snow White that would tell me that I was the fairest mother of them all and, better still, let me watch my daughter in the hill top farmhouse.
I brought my friend Dolly to help with the Ouija. Dolly admired the remaining wine glass as we pushed it around the board but we all we got was a sequence of nonsense letters, except for one group which might have spelled divorce.
I had not thought of divorce before. When I mentioned divorce to my daughter, home in the late evening after the farmhouse dinner, she was not perturbed. In fact, my daughter was more interested in describing that evening’s farmhouse dinner conversation which had been, as nearly as I could tell, about the novels of Anthony Trollope.
I wrote a letter to my husband, telling him about his daughter and her friends in the farmhouse and suggesting that it might be the time for divorce. My letter must have set something off, because he rang me in the middle of a an end of summer thunderstorm but I wouldn’t answer the phone. His letter, which arrived ten days later, made no mention of the girl seventeen years my junior. It told me he had a good job near San Francisco and asked me and our daughter to join him there.
I thought about San Francisco in the evenings as I listened to my daughter’s description of dinner at the farmhouse, of the books they read, of the garden and the mother whose white hair she said, looking at mine, had never been dyed. I wondered if what attracted her to them was not the books or the garden or the chicken or a mother with ordinary greying hair, but the fact that there were three of them — the holy triumvirate: man, woman and child — but I didn’t know.
My daughter was home for dinner at the end of the week and I poured wine into wedding present white wine glass. When I finished drinking my wine, I rinsed the glass, bought out the Ouija board and lit the white candle. My daughter held one side of the glass — there was a curve of garden dirt underneath one of her nails — I held the other and we closed our eyes.
Even with my eyes closed, I know the board so well that I can’t say that I didn’t push the glass toward the ‘S’ or the ‘A’, the ‘N’ or the ‘F’, ‘R’ or ‘S’ or ‘O’.