Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Try this

Here's the prologue to Absent, the novel I've been working on. Comments are most welcome. The material is, of course, copyrighted.

Prologue – Houston, 2002

Emilie, half-waking, moans beneath the scrabbled bedclothes. Her protruding foot is cold and she retracts it, curling herself more tightly around one pillow. She pulls another pillow over her head.

Even so, she hears a scraping sound, as Paul throws open the heavy drapes. “Get up,” he says. “Seriously, Emilie.”

Brilliant light floods the room, and beneath her pillow, Emilie groans, burrowing in more resolutely.

“Now.” And he yanks every one of the covers off, depositing them in a pile on the floor.

“Pa-aul!” She tugs her nightshirt over her behind, as the air conditioning hits her warm skin.

“You have to deal.” he says. He grasps her arm. “Come on, get moving. It will help. Trust me.”

She sits up. She has to trust someone.

His face, above the crisp white shirt and striped tie, is set, but the eyes are sorrowful. “All I’m asking is that you get out of the house today. Syl can give you her grocery list, if that’ll work. See if it doesn’t make you feel better.”

He crouches down before her and tilts her chin up with one hand. “You can do that, now, can’t you, baby? Please?”

“Okay,” she says, very softly.

After Paul leaves, Emilie drags over to their closet where, clad only in underwear, she stares at the clothing arrayed before her. Blouses, slacks, sweaters in neat little transparent boxes, skirted suits, formals, a wall of shoes. So many things.

Too many.

She closes her eyes, sticks out a hand and grabs in the direction of pants. Then blouses. She steps into the first, pulls the second over her head and slips her feet into flats. The pants are brown. The blouse is green. The shoes are red. She knows it will look odd, but she doesn’t care.

Once, before she had Doak, appearances mattered. She enjoyed putting together outfits suited to a particular impression she wanted to create. Even when she was pregnant, she’d combined maternity clothes with her existing wardrobe in ways that her friends found clever and original. She had intended to be that kind of mother, too, inventive, nurturing, competent. She had actually looked forward to motherhood, and for a time after Doak’s birth, she had acted like a normal, new mother—thunderstruck but functioning. She’s sure of that much, at least.

By Doak’s third month, though, she had felt herself beginning to dissolve around the edges. At first, it was just fatigue. She’d take a nap at noon. Then one in mid-morning, too. Then additional naps in the afternoon.

She started to get up later. She’d rouse herself, diaper Doak, feed him, stick him in the crib and go back to bed. Her mother, Isabelle, began to spend whole afternoons at the house, playing with Doak, reading to him. Most days she’d take him to the park, while Emilie vegetated. Eventually, when Emilie didn’t “snap out of it”—as Paul kept hoping—Isabelle found a woman who would look after Doak and the house, too—Sylverta Guidry, who in less than half a year has become indispensable.

Emilie returns to the bedroom and fishes around in a dresser drawer for a clip. Finding one, she quickly fastens her long loose hair back from her face. Out of the way.

She sighs.

Her feet feel heavy, propelling her down the hallway.

In the kitchen she slumps on a stool at the counter without speaking. Beside her, Doak gleefully mushes a piece of zwieback into a pool of milk on the tray of his high chair. Her stomach turns. She’s always been squeamish at breakfast, though—even as a child watching her father, late for work, eat toast hurriedly, never quite closing his mouth.

Sylverta slides a mug of steaming cafĂ© au lait before her. Emilie downs it and holds out her mug for a refill. “Please?” she says. She’s hoping the strong coffee will break through her inertia.

Her son’s bright blond head is intent on the mess he’s making. She reaches out with the moistened edge of a paper napkin to wipe soggy crumbs from his perfect chin. He looks up, a little irritated at the interruption. She smiles at him. She knows what she should be feeling. At times a surge of love for him breaks over her with such intensity that she dissolves into the liquid warmth of it. At other times, like now, she feels only fatigue, and the weight of the obstacle they’ve placed before her. Shopping for groceries. Anyone can do it. Isn’t that the point?

For a moment, Doak’s face acquires a studious expression and it becomes swiftly apparent that his diaper needs changing. “I’ll take him,” says Sylverta, sweeping the boy out of his chair. “I put the new car seat by the back door.”

While Sylverta dangles Doak at arm’s length so he won’t leak on her immaculate lavender uniform, Emilie places her empty mug in the sink and begins to gather up baby paraphernalia. She stuffs diapers, juice, a couple of toys into the bag, hooks the bag over her arm and opens the door. Then she grips the new car seat with both hands and hoists it.

The Volvo is parked in the drive, outside the gate. She balances the car seat against one hip so she can open the rear door. The car seat is awkward and bulky, not heavy, but she’s relieved when it’s in place. She’s begun to strap it in when the phone rings, inside the house.

“It’s Mr. McBride,” Sylverta calls from the patio.

“Can you put Doak in the car for me?” Emilie asks, returning to take the handset. They need one with better range. They need so many things—ordinary, practical objects like pillowslips and towels, some new everyday wine glasses. Just thinking about it exhausts her.

“So you’re on the move,” Paul says in her ear. “Good girl. I’m sorry I won’t be home for dinner. We’ve got a partners’ thing I forgot about. Do I have a clean pink shirt?”

Pink shirt? Pink shirt for the partners? “Just a minute,” Emilie tells him. She walks—it feels like slow-motion—to the gate. “Syl, Mr. Mac wants to know if any of his pink shirts are clean.”

Sylverta says something, but her head has disappeared into the Volvo’s rear seat and her voice is muffled.

“I’m sorry?”

Syl straightens. “Yes, ma’am. Hanging in his closet.”

Emilie relays the information to Paul and as she retraces her steps toward the car she can hear Doak zooming his blue truck back and forth in the air. Rmmmm! Rmmmm!

She slips into the car and fires it up, while pink shirt, partners’ dinner continues to buzz in her ears. It’s his favorite color, the one he thinks makes him look especially good because it does, reflecting warmth up into his sallow face. But pink is an odd choice for the quarterly cigar fest that sends Paul home smashed on scotch and port. (Isn’t it too soon? Wasn’t there one a couple of weeks ago?) The firm’s senior members are white shirt men for the most part, or blue shirts with white collars and really gaudy braces. The peculiarity of his choice and her annoyance at the fact he can’t stay sober in that kind of situation, clatter against each other as she whizzes back down the drive. In the street, she accelerates, maybe a little too fast, and the houses stream by in a blur.

Paul’s late getting home most nights now. Not that she can blame him, really, with an inert, sexless wife waiting for him. So, is he having an affair? This is the first time she’s let herself ask the question. And does she care? She should, but the idea feels curiously remote, as though it might be happening to someone she doesn’t know very well. That’s not at all the way she would expect it to feel, but then practically nothing, any more, feels the way it she thought it would.

At the first stop sign, she glances in the mirror to make eye contact with her son, but his shining eyes aren’t there. No one’s there, where he should be.

Doak’s not there.

Her heart erupts in arcs of white-hot panic. But he had been, hadn’t he? He’d been sitting back there in his car seat, playing with his truck. She didn’t imagine that, did she?

Confusion rises cloud-like around her. She jumps out of the car, sees the unlatched rear door. Did he fall out? How? He’s not in the street, thank God. She whips the car into a U-turn and jams on the brakes as a cyclist in the intersection swerves up onto the grassy verge to keep from being struck.

At the curb in front of the house, she stomps the brake. The empty car seat is lying on its side in the grass. Sylverta sits under the little oak tree in the front yard, clasping Doak tightly to her. She raises her head to look at Emilie, and Emilie feels tissue tearing. Her heart is beating violently.

Doak’s head turns, too, and all the color drains out of the scene. One little arm reaches toward his mother, but he and Sylverta are already moving away. They’re receding quickly, flattening into two dimensions as they go, a picture that no longer contains any space where Emilie might fit.


PJ's talkin'.... said...

You can't stop right when I'm holding my breath... darn it! OK, when are you putting some more on here?

Anonymous said...

Wow, you totally had me hooked. When does the book debut? Are we going to need to wait forever?

Great writing - easy to read, nice pace, and a good story line.

Thanks for sharing it.

Cher said...

Well, you got us hooked! Now whacha gonna do?

The Texas Woman

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