Sunday’s routine is Mass, roast lamb with mint sauce, afternoon spreading mulch on the roses, and in the evening a decade of the Rosary, kneeling face to the wall, the television set cold and brooding behind our backs. Mouth the words, the Hail Mary’s fall into line after one another, the Our Father, and a Hail Holy Queen round the evening out. A word out of place, a disruption of the sacred rhythm, and Da stops me in my tracks, clips my ear, and continues with the litany without a hitch.
Rumor has it that the other men on the oil rig call him “your Holiness” and make the sign of the cross when he walks by. We don’t have the nerve, knowing enough to accept our punishment for not knowing our prayers. Sometimes I mumble “our father, who farts in heaven,” and hope he isn’t listening too closely. What drives him wild is how I parade about the garden suggestively singing Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-a-Ling,” and he roars, “stop singing that jungle music, you heathen.”
The day the music died for him was the day Mario Lanza kicked the bucket. The only songs he sings or hums are hymns, and neither of my folks owns a single record. The soundtrack of our lives is the rattle of the wooden spoon on the banisters in the mornings to wake us, and the bells of the Angelus at noon and six in the evening. Sometimes the sweet tones of the ice-cream vendor’s van inflict a little happiness in the day and I get a tub of HB vanilla and a wooden spoon.
I hope that soon his month on dry land will be up, and he will return to the rigs, his gear packed in the kitbag, his pea coat buttoned to the collar. When he is at sea our lives exist on different planes, two worlds in which the same clock ticks the same time. At home, without his overpowering menace he might as well be digging trenches on the moon for all we care.
The walls of the house thrum with the possibility of another argument that’ll send me skittering for the safety of the jacks, or my bedroom, the only sanctuaries when the world is in what she calls, “a terrible state of chassis.” When the walls explode into life from the door slams I wish for a different life. Sometimes, his anger rolls across his face in tidal waves of alternating skin tone, sometimes red, sometimes pale, his lips set and fists clench and unclench.
I sit in the wardrobe, torch in hand, and turn the pages of a book, perhaps Tom Sawyer, wishing I were sailing on the Mississippi, even though I am unable to spell its name. The wardrobe provides some protection against the ire spilling through the house like the gushing of one of his oilrigs. When I huddle in the back, knees to my chest, there is a delay between the door slams and the yells. The summoning of Our Lord, whose name I am forbidden from taking in vain, the appeal to the “sweet Jesus,” the Old Man worships serves only to confuse me.
I imagine God as a bitter, angry person who takes delight in meting out punishment to ordinary sinners. I clutch my knees to my chest and shut my eyes tight, pray staccato prayers for bolts of lightning to strike the Old Man down, or for him to plunge over the side of the oil platform and perish in the cold North Sea waters, or at least for a heart attack to put a stop to him.
The top of the piano houses the Waterford crystal vases and bowls, the most breakable ones at the back, nearest the wall. Once, I asked about an earthquake hitting and Mam laughed at me. “Don’t be silly,” she said. “There are none of those in Ireland.”
She is right. But, she is wrong. The only fault lines that cross our island are those of the familial variety, the ones most families suffer through, the ones that crack and gape most at the holidays. Our earthquake strikes when we get into it on Easter Sunday, the Old Man and me. It is only a short while after the rock has been rolled away from the cave entrance, the grave robbers thwarted in their search for gold, their failure illuminated by the rising sun to the East.
He asks if I’ve been at his whiskey. It isn’t whiskey. It’s poitin: illegal moonshine made by old friends of his in the Knockmealdown Mountains of Tipperary. I shake my head. “It probably had mold on it,” I say. “It’s poison.” My mane of long hair sends dust motes in the light from the chandelier, and the old man curses me for my “sissy” hair. I yell back at him and drop the f-word. Purple in the face, he grabs me, grasps my long hair and pulls me into his arms, wraps me in a bear hug and in a hurry the tears well in my eyes.
My shouts bring Mam in from the kitchen where she’s basting the goose for dinner. Her arms are crossed and her lips tight in anger. A smear of butter runs across her cheek and she wipes at it with her apron. “Let him go, Ronan,” she says. He shakes his head and cradles me tighter, squeezing until I squeak like a stuffed toy. “I said let go, he’s only a child.”
“He’s almost thirteen.” I get shoved away from him, right into the piano. The triangled metronome rocks, the crystal tips and churns, and she watches the wobbling crystal-ware.
“Oh, sweet Jesus,” she says, as a tall vase topples to the carpet and rolls to the leg of the dining room table. It is followed by another vase, and the high-pitched ting of fine crystal echoes. He goes for me again. I make a grab for his arm and the piano shudders. She throws up her hands. “Why did I marry into your family?” she asks. “I knew you’d amount to nothing.”
The Old Man slumps into the armchair by the fireplace breathing heavily. Mam collects the fallen vases one by one, and checks for cracks. One yellow vase has a large fissure in it and she cradles it to her chest and sighs. “It was my mother’s.” She sits in a cane rocking chair and weeps. He mutters dark words before going over to check on her, and I take the opportunity to flee to my bedroom. The goose waits on the kitchen table, and the ghost walks from the cave into the sunlight.
Today is the anniversary of my friend and mentor, Jeanne Leiby’s death. I’ve got little to say, except that her loss is felt deeply by me, and I think of her often. Yesterday I read her story, “Viking Burial” to my 10th grade students and spoke of her loss. We’re reading Camus and speaking of big issues, and death is at the forefront of my mind these past weeks, for numerous reasons. Little to be said, save to say Jeanne’s loss is ongoing, her place in the world unfilled, her voice still with me as I read her words aloud. Three years. I left LSU deeply saddened by her loss, having read at her memorial, with her bereft family and friends in the audience. And then, too, the faces of others who had spoken and acted so poorly towards her, smug and transparent.
I’ve moved on from those MFA days, abandoned the writing style I had tried to adopt, and now I write as Jeanne lived: not giving a shit. True. I don’t give a shit about audience, or agents, or advances. What matters is truth. What I write now is true, or at least my truth, the writing that comes from a place of honest acceptance. I learned that from Jeanne, to trust my own voice, my words. She encouraged me to stick to the voice of the young Irish boy in the novel we worked over together in her office at LSU. I didn’t listen to her, preferring to try and write something an agent might prefer. But after her death, after returning to Carpinteria, I remembered her advice and cut away the chaff of that novel. What’s left is the voice of the young boy, a voice that fills the novel I’ll bring to publication by the end of the year, and on the third anniversary of Jeanne’s death, I think of her honesty, her unflinching belief in her own self, and realize it was too much honesty for many people to take, but that was Jeanne, and she paid the price, and it was no small amount. I think of her today, raise a glass, and say a prayer in her honor.
I was 21 when I first encountered Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, and it was loaned to me by my tennis friend, Joseph O’Dwyer. He’d returned from America, where he was playing tennis on scholarship at North Kentucky University, and all his talk was of Bolivian Marching Powder, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.”
“You’ve got to read this,” he told me, just before he flew back to Highland Heights and another year of college tennis. We’d spent the summer playing marathon games of chess in his back garden, running drills on the courts a hundred yards away at St. Mary’s Tennis Club, and talking books and movies. Before he flew off, a dog-eared copy of Solitude was thrown at me, and a farewell until the following summer. I promised to read the book, let him know what I thought of it.
I read the first sentence, scratched my head, and buried the book under a pile of laundry in my bedroom. Nonsense. Yes, I couldn’t make head nor tail of the thing. Instead, I re-read Stephen King’s It, and Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and forgot about Marquez and Macondo.
Sometime after I broke up with the girlfriend I was seeing at the time, I cleaned out my bedroom and found Joe’s copy of the book, cobweb-covered and more yellowed than when he’d given it to me. Lovelorn, I opened the cover again, read those first sentences, “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.” Whether it was my broken heart, or the chill of an Irish winter, something resonated with me and I ended up turning page after page, through the night, until sometime around 3AM I reached the last sentence and held my breath. Oh, the epiphany of those words, the completion of Marquez’ circular narrative:
Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.
Now, so many years later, I re-read the book every year or two, delving once more into the mad waters of Marquez’ narrative river. There’s a comfort in this novel, a remembrance of a youthful time when tennis and chess and movies and books and pubs was the be-all and end-all of my life. For those reasons I found the news of Marquez’ death today to be devastating, as if a part of my soul had shut down and gone out of business. And in a way it has. But, I’ll always have the words to return to and savor anew. Godspeed, Maestro, Godspeed.
(Quotations from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967; trans. Gregory Rabassa)
Today I’m taking part in the #MyWritingProcessTour. It’s so interesting and instructive to see how other writers go about their work. My friend and Press 53 fellow, Bonnie ZoBell, nominated me. Her book, What Happened Here is an engrossing, brilliant book about fictional people and events centered on the actual Pacific Southwest Airlines disaster of 1978 that took place in the North Park district of San Diego, close to Lindberg Field Airport. Bonnie’s answers can be found at this link: ZoBell Answers.
What am I working on?
Currently I’m editing a novel set in Ireland, about a young boy dealing with issues of alienation and loneliness, caused by his father’s inability to communicate with him. The book is written in first person point-of-view and examines the difficulties the boy encounters as he grows up and experiences puberty and its inherent problems. I’m also working on Pure Slush’s “Year in Stories” Project, and have three months of the twelve left to complete. My stories deal with a character, The Bird Mahony, who is reeling from the death of his parents, searching for love and meaning for his life in small-town Ireland. The project gives the writers latitude to spread wide the canvas and really show the life of a character from multiple aspects over the course of a year.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I don’t identify with a genre, so the smart answer is it doesn’t. However, insofar as my work is different to other writers writing short fiction, I suppose voice, sentence structure, and content might set my writing apart, a little. There’s no attempt by me any more to fit into any category, nor fall into a proscribed plot format. All of that is uninteresting to me, and might indeed be a financial kiss-of-death in terms of ever making any real money from my writing. I’m more interested in spinning the images and ideas in my writing on top of those long metal poles, constantly returning to one to give it another spin, keeping the whole thing going, even as the entirety of the story teeters on disaster. I don’t want to be “like” other writers, even though there are many I admire. I’m my own man, writing my own material, and to hell with the in-crowd, or the followers of literary fashion. Maybe my dissatisfaction with such establishment ideas is why I get to do what I want without much attention.
Why do I write what I do?
Didn’t I just answer that? I can’t write to order, or fashion, or style, and instead write from a deep place inside of myself, and what comes out is strange, convoluted, thin on plot and character for the most part, but it’s inventive and honest and real and that’s more meaningful to me than the promise of agent representation or big-house publishing deals. Once, those things mattered, but today they seem inconsequential. There are people I write for who matter to me, alive and dead, inspirational people, from former students and mentors, to lost loves and childhood friends. I write from the conviction that what I have to say matters to me. I suppose, at the deepest level, I write for my mother and father, from who so much inventiveness, humor, discipline, love and wonder comes.
How does my writing process work?
With a toddler running around the house and a full load teaching high school English, the answer is not very well! Prior to going back to the classroom, I was able to take a fair chunk of my time and focus on the writing process, and submitting to various journals and presses. These days I tend to squirrel time away and write in short, no-longer-than-an-hour bursts. The advantage to having so little spare time to write is that I don’t fiddle about getting down to the work, and now the minute I sit at my desk I begin to write. Some days it’s revision, some days new material. In terms of process, I write out first drafts without going back over the material, waiting for the whole piece to be down on paper before setting to the revision process. Ideally, I read all my work aloud, listening for words that sound out of place, or phrases that grind and jar the ear. During revision I tend to leave the actual frame of the piece alone for the most part, focusing instead on polishing the work on the word and phrase level. Working with Jeanne Leiby and Jim Wilcox at LSU taught me the importance of keeping my prose as clean and tight as possible. Both were fastidious editors at the sentence level and I find myself constantly critiquing everything I read with an eye to their editorial advice. That’s not to say that errors don’t creep into my writing. Happens all the time!
Samuel Snoek-Brown is the author of the chapbook Box Cutters (sunnyoutside press) and the novel Hadridden (Columbus Press), for which he received a 2013 Oregon Literary Fellowship. His work also has appeared in dozens of print and online literary magazines. Samuel has a doctorate in creative writing from the University of North Texas and teaches writing and literature in Portland, Oregon, where he lives with his librarian wife and their two cats. http://snoekbrown.com/. Twitter: @SnoekBrown
Clodagh O’Brien writes flash fiction, short stories and poetry. Her writing is featured or forthcoming in various publications and anthologies including The Poetry Bus, wordlegs, Literary Orphans, Bare Hands Poetry, 1000 words, the firstcut, The Galway Review, The Salmagundi (67 Press) amongst others. In 2013 she was longlisted for the Doire Press 2nd Annual International Chapbook Competition and the 2012 Over the Edge New Writer of the Year. In 2002 she won the Daily Telegraph Young Science Writer of the Year Award. You can read her work at www.clodaghobrien.com and tweets @wordcurio.
Maura Barrett grew up in the foothills of the Comeragh Mountains in Co Waterford, Ireland. Her love of literature seeps from that landscape. She has been published thrice. Her first outing was a work of non fiction entitled Kilcooley Abbey, which charts the life of an Cistercian Abbey from Norman times, was published in 2010 by Slieveardagh Rural Development. Her fiction is showcased in Original Sins an anthology of New Irish Writing published by MACE in 2011 and Knife Edge an anthology of crime, thriller, mystery and suspense stories published by Marble City Publishing in 2012. Maura’s writing covers the nuances of life and the craft of surviving intact. She is currently working on her debut novel Beautiful Freedom, set in 80s recession Ireland where the grip of the Catholic Church desperately clings, the peace process is spawned and one woman gives away her baby. She lives now in the bowels of Co.Tipperary. Her blog is at http://www.simplesite.com/Her-Story/.
Linda Niehoff is a writer and photographer in a small Kansas town. She’s in love with silver water towers, ghost stories, and instant film. Her stories have appeared in Crack the Spine 2103 Spring Anthology, Scissors & Spackle, and Literary Orphans among others. Her website is at http://thewrittenpicture.typepad.com/. Twitter: @lindaniehoff
Teri Lee Kline:
Teri Lee Kline was born and raised in a small town in Wisconsin. She survived a strict catholic upbringing with her four sisters and her brother. Always an introvert and happiest when curled up with a book or pen and paper, she started writing at an early age and never stopped. Her work has appeared in Sein und Werden and Literary Orphans and has a collection of very short fiction in progress. Berkeley, California is now the place she calls home. She misses the snow. Her blog is at http://www.terileekline.com/. Twitter: @terikline