Midnight Visitors

I feel the distance from my characters, knowing their continued demand that I not forget them. Not let them slip away. On busy days they are a distraction; on quiet and lazy days they are a distant reminder only, like a dream only partially remembered. I remember chiding the real Kathryn in California that she was letting her fictional Elizabeth die. Withholding energy and concern for the precious created being.

My journal is filling up with daily miseries and distress. I need to slip away. It’s well before midnight here, in Virginia. In California the sun is perhaps just setting. I recall a midnight visitor to Billy’s work shed. I wish I might have the same knock on my own door, to shake the tired sails. An unexpected breeze in my dead calm. A tap on the door’s glass pane. Blessed need.

Midnight

Billy switched off the desk lamp. He was surprised how fast the computer was. Instant web. He wondered how much Kathryn had invested in the shed. She always said a phone was too much interruption, and an old radio was enough for the news. The shed certainly was connected.

“The Gate,” he said, aloud. No echo. Solid walls, fresh drywall. Ceiling tile. He had not noticed at first, delivering the box and towels. Sidetracked by wonder and questions. An air-conditioner perched in the window overlooking the garden. No need tonight, but it implied he might stay into the summer’s heat. He tapped the wall. Insulation, and baseboard heaters for cold nights. A wash basin and pitcher on the small dresser.

The box and things. He chuckled. Wonder what’s in the box. Two chairs next to the desk, another in front of the monitor. Space for work and visitors. He weighed his dreams. Cal State had a campus in Sacramento. USF too. Classes started in a matter of weeks. Or he could wait. He would call his mom in the morning. And Hollister, too. About his plans.

But more than a plan, his dreams. One was a voice that called several times each day, it seemed. Reminders. The pieces of Elizabeth’s Story which were his. His alone. The pieces which traveled on a spur line, away from her fears. Toward his own beckoning call. Well beyond the bend in the tracks. Beyond out of sight. Bodil and Søren. The trinity flower. Soap and salt and sawdust, a budding notch where twigs joined. And Rita.

He relaxed onto the bed, soft blue moonlight brushing at the window and edge of the desk. Rita. He closed his eyes. Slowed his breathing. Rita had showed him how to release muscle tension. Settling back comfortably. Breathing to a slow count. In and two, three, four. And wait. A moment. Out and two, three, four. And wait. He smiled, knowing that he would lose count before many repetitions. Rita and he had laughed gently about who would drift off to sleep first. Fingertips and moonlight. His dreams. Dreams.

A light tap at the door. Barely audible. Tap, and tap. Billy awoke, but did not stir, the shed’s sounds not yet familiar. Another tap, Soft. An index finger’s knuckle. Urgent, yet private. Secret. On the door’s window. A rattling tap.

“Who’s there?” Billy asked.

“Hey. Billy. It’s me. Hollister!” A hissed voice. “Open up!” Billy rolled to the edge of the bed and scratched the back of his head.

“Hang on.” Billy switched on the desk lamp, went to the door and opened it. Hollister’s twisted smile, a dark figure behind him, a shadow. A man in an overcoat. Somehow familiar, Billy thought. “What’re you doing out this late, Hollister?”

“Working, not like some people I know. Driving cab.” He grinned. “This here is Arthur Newcomb. You know his name quite well, I think.” The man nodded. “He wants to tell you something. About a darkened room.”

 

I am suddenly wide awake. Dogs barking, hearing the same midnight greeting.

 

 

The Stories

We are working on various paths which lead from Elizabeth’s Story. Some are hopeful; some are desolate and thankless. Some may turn into unexpected blessings. The distress seemed to begin when Billy returned from Denmark, yet yearnings and suppositions and fears accompanied each of my friends throughout the chapters of Elizabeth’s book. Now these souls want to know which way to turn. They meet at Kathryn’s table, nearly midnight.

The Stories

            They sat in silence. The clock notched eternity, soft-edged clicks. Elizabeth’s shallow breathing. Kathryn asked if anyone wanted coffee. Elizabeth shook her head and leaned toward Billy.

“William. You delivered the books. Right?”

“Yes. Two. Safe and sound. Well, three. I took an extra copy.” He straightened in the chair, drew a long breath, and nodded. “Yes. It was quite a trip. Your mother.” He paused and nodded. “And Rita. I wondered what I would find. If anything. Either place.”

Kathryn stood up slowly, as if gripped by dull aches. Or weariness. She filled the kettle with water and put it on the stove. Elizabeth leaned toward Billy.

“William, it sounds like the story grew. The way you told us at supper. Rita. And my mother. It sounds like they’re in my story now. In Pennsylvania and Denmark, today, as if they were in the books you were delivering. And you too!” She laughed. “In the book. How can that be?” The story ended here, didn’t it? More than a year ago. But it sounds like the stewardess you met is involved. And Newcomb, the RV engineer from the train. Pushing their worries and dreams into the book. How is that possible?” She waited. Billy scratched his head with his right hand and then rubbed his thumb over the fingertips, studying.

“Well, yes,” Billy said. “Stories grow as we tell them. You know that. How about Newcomb? Mixing up your manuscript with his magazines. Hollister seems to think otherwise, but won’t tell. Anyway, Elizabeth’s Story is not just about your life from high school to here, is it? There’s so much more.” The grumbling kettle smoothed to a whistle. Kathryn busied herself putting out cups. She poured boiling water into the cloth filter on the blue enamel coffee pot.

“So whose story is it, then, William?” Elizabeth asked. “Once everyone has had a go at it. Whose is it?” Billy studied his cup.

“Well. It’s a story. But then there’s the audience. Every reader, or anyone hearing it, has a story too. Yes, I shared it with strangers. And you read parts of it to Newcomb. On the train. He even tried to steal it. Souls want a story, maybe to save their own. To give their own stories new life. Your chapters in theirs. Overlapping. Parent and child.” He laughed at the irony. “Or grandparent. I stayed with Rita almost two months.” Kathryn poured coffee into his cup.

“Rita,” Elizabeth said.

“I read her the book,” Billy said. “Aloud. Cover to cover. Twice. Some chapters I read several times. She was particularly interested in the chapters about people who are imprisoned. The women. ‘In chains,’ Rita said.”

“Rita.” Elizabeth smiled up at Kathryn and put her hand over her cup.

“Let’s work on the book,” Billy said. “Maybe tomorrow.”

“Yes. Maybe,” Elizabeth said, pushing her chair back. Kathryn nodded at Billy.

“Back bathroom, William. You know where. And you have a fresh bed.” She smiled. “Key on the hook.

 

We’ll supply some more thoughts toward the future in fourteen days. Do you have any ideas? Any advice for these souls?

Characters at the Gate

I’ve promised you a brief look at what has happened to the Elizabeth’s Story folks since the latest edition of the book appeared. I hope you took a look at the April 14 post. The first of these glimpses. If not, I would encourage you to read that one first, and then return here. Your call.

There are some concerns, and Elizabeth probably feels as though she has lost control of the authorship. So many collateral stories. Here is the second in a series of eight 500-word narrative essays which take us forward, toward some clarity. If you have a question, please ask. I will put it to one or another of the group and let you know what is said. Or withheld. They are a squirrely bunch. Especially at night. Or when riding in the car. I don’t like it when they drive. I hide the keys.

 

Watcher at the Gate – Elizabeth

Billy returned to the house. Kathryn sat at the kitchen table. Two cups.

“Miss Kathryn,” he began. She motioned him to sit, a finger to her lips. Darkness at the door’s edge. Billy sat down.

“The shed!” he hissed. “It’s an office. And a bed? What in the world?” Kathryn smiled broadly. Hint of worry.

“It’s been sort of a secret.” She looked directly at him. “I wasn’t certain that you would return. From Europe. Maybe a new adventure.”

“What are you talking about?” She waved him quiet.

“I listened to you this evening. Talking about your trip. And about college, and Hollister, and plans. I was relieved.”

“The shed, Miss Kathryn. What’s up?”

“Okay, William. And let’s start by you calling me my real name. Just Kathryn. If you want to work in the shed. The Gate.”

“The Gate? I saw the sign over the door. What’s this about, Miss, I mean. Well, Kathryn?” She smiled, nodding. She leaned forward.

“William. You could take my place. At the Gate.” She held her coffee cup halfway to her lips. “You will graduate college in a couple years, but you need to begin planning and preparing yourself. It’s an opportunity. Priceless rewards. It’s about the stories. The books. Each person’s story. Like your William Book. And it’s not the Billy Book anymore.” Her smile broadened.

“What?” He almost shouted.

“You’ll see. I want you to take my place, William. Soon. You will find out what I mean. About the stories people will tell. When they arrive. At the Gate.”

“The stories?” Elizabeth’s voice. Clear and strong. She stood in the bedroom doorway. She pointed at Billy.

“It was my story! I wrote it, instead of simply living it, a haphazard victim of each day. Then I realized I needed to finish the telling, actually write the final chapters, and re-write the earlier ones. And chapters I hadn’t even dreamed of yet. So I took the train to California. To hide with the only friend I ever had, find her protective shadow. And finish my story. Kathryn. My Kathryn never tried to make her way into my story. Or tell it to other people. She always knew my story. Elizabeth’s Story.” She paused, caught her breath and went on. Looking at Kathryn.

“Okay, Billy Johnson helped me. And got it published. Then my mistake. Asking him to deliver the two books. And he started telling the story. Confusing it. Complicating it. He lost track of whose story it was. And who was telling it. Kathryn, it’s my story.”

Kathryn eased herself out of her chair and made her way around the table to Elizabeth.

“Come on, Elizabeth. Let’s sit down and talk. William, you too.” Elizabeth put her arm around Kathryn and shuffled to the table. Kathryn looked over Elizabeth’s shoulder. Billy’s shocked eyes.

“Here we are, William. Sooner than I thought. The Gate. Help her to the table.” Billy gently grasped Elizabeth’s elbow.

“And toward the Gate, William. The Gate.”

 

Coming full circle

I attended a benefit gathering yesterday evening at the fire hall in Stanley. The dinner and the company were excellent. A fine cause, community good will, and special folks at the table. A blessing to be a guest. As the meeting came to a close, a woman approached me and said that she had seen the article in the newspaper about the book. She was excited to get a copy. She said the title of the book was a real coincidence. One of the sub-themes in the book. Elizabeth’s Story. She felt there was no shortage of coincidence in this world, as her name was Elizabeth, too. Mary Elizabeth. But even more coincidental, her mother’s name was also Elizabeth, and together with her maiden name, her mother’s connection with timeless coincidence was complete. Mary Elizabeth’s mother’s maiden name was Story. Hence Elizabeth Story. Elizabeth’s Story. Validation.

This evening Mike from the Tractor Supply called, reminding me that I had told him months ago that I was working on a second book, the novel. He had read my first book and we discussed it at length several months ago. Talked about stories. Everyone’s true nature. Sojourners and tale-bearers. This week the local paper carried a generous article about Elizabeth’s Story, and Mike wondered if I would autograph his copy. I asked Elizabeth, as she is close by these days. “Absolutely,” without hesitation. I completed the eight chapter ideas this week, the collection forming a portfolio of this year’s writing. So far. The final entry was revelation. A voice from the past, in the form of a conversation between Elizabeth and Kathryn. Look for it, as the ideas unfold. Every other Friday. As promised.   

Gathering at the Gate

First in a series of fortnightly invitations:

I mentioned that familiar characters met me in the hallway. After the reception and reading. They were subdued. At first it seemed like fatigue. Then sorrow. Or anger. They had questions. We walked to the parking lot. Amazingly, we all fit into the car. The hour’s drive south was silent. Then, one small voice from the rear seat. “What next? Do we just ride? Or get out somewhere along the road?” So I told them.

“I wrote down some thoughts. Where the story might lead. We gather at Kathryn’s. She has a plan for Billy. Just some thoughts. Let me tell you. Then you tell me what you think. I feel very much like you do.” Another voice from the back seat. “Easy for you to say.”

Watcher at the Gate

Billy sat on the edge of Elizabeth’s bed. Kathryn sang softly in the kitchen. She apparently could not recall all the words, so it was mostly humming, a low whistling, too. “Memory Lane.” Billy smiled. The irony of her night music. And comfortable kitchen tones, coffee cups and spoons. Elizabeth breathed easily and settled in her sleep. Billy stood up, slowly and carefully. He leaned over Elizabeth and brushed wisps of silver blond strands from her face, then kissed her hair lightly, just above her ear. Faint reminder of shampoo.

“Good night, Elizabeth.”

“Night. Honey.” A soft murmur.

Billy stepped around the foot of the bed and went into the kitchen, leaving the bedroom door ajar.

“Yes. Leave it open a bit.” Elizabeth’s clear voice in the dark. Billy edged the door open, a few more inches of light. Kathryn put her cup on the table, stood and motioned Billy into the living room. A box on the sofa.

“William, can you take these things out to your old work shed?” His shed. He had often slept there, a folding cot, and done his homework on a table of boards and sawhorses. The shed was Billy’s home when his mother worked nights, during Billy’s alternative center stint. Miss Kathryn’s plan. Their stories. Hollister and Billy. The garden and shed had been safe havens.

“Sure. I’ll take them.” Billy hefted the box, folded towels and bottles of spring water balanced on top. Kathryn held the door.

“Put the things on the table. Come back in before you leave.”

“Okay, Miss Kathryn. I haven’t even had time to call Mom, to let her know I’m home.”

“She’ll be glad you’re back. She called a lot while you were gone.” Kathryn’s eyes softened. “Yes. You are home, William.”

Billy walked to the garden shed. At the door he balanced the box, one arm and his knee. The door’s easy latch had been replaced with a sturdy doorknob. He opened the door and sidled into the dark space. He flipped the light switch with his left elbow. The surprising brightness, a nearly empty room. Fresh paint. No dust. No garden tools or buckets of junk. Replaced by narrow bed, desk and lamp. A keyboard and wide monitor screen. Polished shelves with no dusty burden of jars and trays of rusty nails. No hardened paint brushes, hose clamps. No rakes and shovels in the corner. Gone.

Billy put the box on the desk. He stood, frozen in place. How to ask Kathryn about something so patently obvious? He glanced back. Over the bed, a painting. Orange yellow shafts of sunlight. Clouds. He looked closely. Signed, ‘Kathryn.’ He turned to leave. A hand painted sign above the doorway, between doorframe and ceiling. “The Gate.” He flipped off the light switch, stepped out onto the garden pathway, and swung the shed door shut. Its new lock clicked solidly, secure, certain.

“Miss Kathryn,” he said, to no one. “What do you have in mind? What in the world?”

Finished with my brief tale, I pulled the car to the side of the road and stopped. I put the car in park and turned off the ignition. I closed my eyes and imagined that I was alone. “What do you think? Tell me what you think.”

New Chapters

The gathering at Lord Fairfax Community College on Friday, April 7 was a wonderful concluding event in Elizabeth’s story, sharing with many friends and colleagues, and one or two plainly curious souls. I cannot express the gratitude I felt toward those who came. The meeting gave me a special sense of completion. Unfortunately, I did not share the threads and reflections and shadows which greeted me in the hallway after everyone had left. The things I didn’t feel comfortable talking about during that celebratory moment.

Elizabeth’s Story unfolded in essays, chapters, journal entries and daydreams over the course of almost two years. The characters contributed along the way, the story grew, changing in direction and tone, and surprises dictated the day as much as did any of the several authors’ intent. The book became solid, cast in print during the final week of March or first week of April, 2017. In any case, somewhere spanning a symbolic April 1.

I have to report that the story has gained some new momentum and urgency, not all welcome, and certainly not planned. It would have been more convenient and comfortable to close out the book and begin a new project. Yet the characters have hung around Kathryn’s home. And some have come in the night. More specifically, to the garden gate and the path to the work shed. They are not content to let the story rest. They feel there are some unanswered questions, some feelings of betrayal, some nagging fears. And luckily, some curiosity. And hope.

To deal with this, I have written parts of eight new chapters in Elizabeth’s Story. Or closely related to her story. Partial answers to questions left hanging for the careful and curious. And I will be glad to share them, if any reader is interested. Regardless of any response to my offer, I will post the first of the reports, in brief narrative, perhaps five hundred words, this coming Friday, April 14. Following that, I will post another five hundred word narrative each fortnight, or until the parties involved are satisfied there is nothing more worth saying. Perhaps the summer will shed enough light on the matter to put it to rest.

Reading, Q & A, and Reception

The Good Professor has set up a reading and reception for tomorrow, at the Middletown campus. Friday, April 7 at noon. Like a gunslinger’s challenge. I’ll have to show up or get out of town, I guess. I have some ideas, though I haven’t chosen the two or three passages I want to read, the most indicative of questions and connections, but also the best-crafted pieces.

I think I will talk about the structure of the story, the parallel plots of Elizabeth traveling to Kathryn in California and Billy traveling to Rita, in Jutland. Both telling her story along the way. Parallel, yet clearly different renderings of Elizabeth’s Story. And a range of collateral connection and effect. That will lead me to the second piece. Elizabeth’s Story, and the multiple (three at least) interpretations of those two words. Then I will close with a brief disclaimer about truth and fiction and where this story came from, citing the real-life Kathryn in California, our boarding school 50th reunion, the survey, her hiding. And mine, too. Our lives. We have become lovers: of Elizabeths. Her Elizabeth. And mine. Then I will ask for a question or two, read a passage, or two; another few questions, and finish with my favorite passage. I have no idea which that is, as I love them all.

I received an email from my older brother Roger in Stony Point, N.Y. I had sent him and Jo Ann a signed copy of the book. He is a tireless and always busy freelance sound and film artist. He admired the book and put it aside until the end of his busy day. He remarked on the surprise, the pure volume of effort when he opened the book. And he called me a “writer.” (His words) They echoed an email from my precious real-life writer and poet Kathryn in California, the source for so much of what is in Elizabeth’s Story. Kathryn once called me that too, a “writer.” I am marveling in these days. I hope you are doing the same, in yours. Everything is connected, by the way. Parallel tracks, remarkably similar journeys, common fears and hopes and destinations. If you find time, let me know what you are doing. I’ll bet you are a “writer!”

7 Trestle  

A Story Once Told

Elizabeth completed her story. She and Billy weighed its completion after he returned from Denmark. The missing pieces, the additions, both intended and not. And some midnight surprises. Elizabeth’s story does not continue, yet it might expand and gather texture and strength. Believability. And truth.

It’s unlikely that Elizabeth will return to Virginia. It doesn’t really matter. Donner was lonely at home anyway, perhaps even more so than Elizabeth, though he never found a way to express his pointless solitude. For now, Elizabeth is in California, in comfortable and forgiving surroundings. She will share in the good fortune of Billy’s presence in Kathryn’s garden shed. Billy will write. He will also learn more about the garden gate, its invitation.

The story grows, as hungry souls return to the garden, to take up one search or another. For meaning and closure. Completion. I will try to gather them gently, and encourage them to be hopeful. And kind. Their stories, flowing from Elizabeth’s Story.

Each fortnight, beginning April 14, I will post a 500-word next step in the narrative. Toward completion of Elizabeth’s story, tying up loose threads. There is so much more to know, or at least to hope. And to believe. If you ask about inconsistencies and contradictions, things unclear or incomplete, I will try to settle them. Or include them in a fresh reality. Elizabeth’s Story.

Elizabeth

At the dentist’s office, I had only a few minutes to wait. The assistant came to the waiting room and when I asked how she was, she showed me a photo of her “new baby,” pride beaming bright like the baby’s smiling face in the photo. “Mighty young to be a grandmother,” I said. Then I added that I had had a “baby” during the past week, too. “Oh?” She knew I was the stepfather of several and that I was seventy years old. Perhaps a great-grandfather? I pulled out one of the wistful blue-green cards announcing Elizabeth’s Story-If Truth Be Told. Coming in 2017. “It came out this week,” I said. “A novel.” She was pleased and impressed, and added that the young girl who assisted, cleaned up, in-training in the back had also written a novel. Three, in fact, two of them sequels. “Couldn’t put them down,” she said. I asked where the girl published them, and got the response that they were not published, the girl had simply shared rough drafts. “Three books?” I asked if it would be okay to speak with girl, about publication or getting some help in finishing up the drafts, with a view toward publication. The woman assured me it would be no problem.

When I had finished my check-up, no cavities or problems, I felt fortunate. Blessed, even. Before meeting with the girl, I went to my car and got one of the two proof copies of the book, plus found a copy of my 2013 memoir to share as well, particularly the “Meeting Ivory Rose” chapter, about how I stumbled across self-publication information. The girl was very shy, very young, perhaps nineteen or twenty, slender fingers, thin features, and a gentle and soft voice, almost apologetic. I barged right into my pitch, “I hear you have written several books. Unpublished so far? I hear they are very good. Engaging,” and I went on, making any meaningful response unlikely. I indicated the two books I held, my books, and told a little about the chapter from the memoir, concerning publication, and then asked if I could give her a copy of my new novel. I had no pen and asked if she had something I could write with, sign and add something in the front of the book. She handed me a pencil which left light gray scratches on the paper, but I went ahead. “What’s your name?” I asked, prepared to write a small inspiration in the front, hopeful.

“Elizabeth,” she said. The universe stopped for a moment, an insignificant coincidence and connection. Or was it? Planets aligned, birds flew north with the spreading warmth, the clock on the dentist’s wall stopped ticking, a battery giving up after thirty-one million prescribed pulses. “Elizabeth,” she said again, as I had not scrawled any words into the book. I showed her the cover, Elizabeth’s Story.

Elizabeth or Kathryn 2 (4)

“Everything is connected, you know. Nothing is coincidental. Nothing. Not me. Not you. Nothing.” We talked about publication for a minute or two, and I left. The parking lot was warm and welcoming. An easy drive home. Satisfied and easy. Everything connected. Wistful and silent.

A Message for You

I sent a message via amateur radio net to Kathryn in California this evening. It said, within the allowed maximum five lines of five groups of words or numerals or punctuation. Twenty-two here. Elizabeth’s lucky elevens:

Elizabeth on Amazon (stop) do

not purchase (stop) small package

in mail Monday (stop) Elizabeth

is safe even though story

continues (stop)

It was a joyous, yet quiet message. Victory and completion, yet the “story continues.” I wonder where new twists or entirely new information might come from. But I recall writing contingencies in my head while driving home from a conference in Richmond, alone in the car again and mind stumbling over resolution and solution and response to the many contradictions. The things Elizabeth had told people, what she had written, in part to justify her selfish behavior, in part because she didn’t quite know where to turn next, just pack and run. The small khaki shoulder bag, Rita’s name and the old address in Denmark inked across the inside flap. Just enough room to carry the least amount of necessity. Where stories come from. Where? But the message said the “story continues.”

My assignments are six five-hundred word essays. The characters, Kathryn and Elizabeth, Billy and Hollister. Newcomb. Rita. Good guys, less than good guys. Complex girls, and warm and solid. I’ve done four of the essays; two to go. I will get a sense of the summer in the next two weeks. I can feel it. Perhaps at the reading, while thinking out loud. A moment. A thought. A seed. And some doubt. Yet maybe. Maybe.

Can you help me? Maybe not yet. Whenever you are ready. And dare.