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Thin ribbon of light under heavy damask drapes covering a door that slides open to the back patio. I cannot unsee what I have seen.
A new day begins.
AN AROMA LIKE PRISTINE OYSTERS, like fresh mushrooms, like longing, rises from the forest floor when the segmented shovel of Harvey’s track hoe bites into the soil. Fifty feet away, Mrs. Harvey sits, her bland, powdery pale face nearly invisible from the passenger side of Harvey’s white truck, hands out of sight but no doubt resting on the bible in her lap, King James version all the way.
Mrs. Harvey has a name of her own, something like Enid, but to Buck and me she has always been Mrs. Harvey, an ivory-haired presence from another century. Pleasant, slightly mysterious, calls everyone “dear.” I have heard she pastors a backwoods holy ghost fire church.
Mrs. Harvey never gets out of the truck. Sometimes I approach to pass the time of day, and feel her stir, the slow movement of her head toward me peculiarly intense. I feel half-naked when she looks at me. Is it because she wears long dresses with high necks, sleeves to the wrist, and hemlines to the ankle while I run around in track shorts and black t-shirts with an occasional nod to cold temps wearing one of Buck’s old Cabela’s olive-green zip-up sweat shirts? Or do I sense she wants to biopsy my soul with a snake-handler’s boldness that belies her cornflower blue print cotton dress and soft, plump hands?
I AM LISTENING to an audio version of Diana Gabaldon’s 1991 novel, Outlander, massive first novel of a series. It has been described as “genre-bending,” conflating elements of historical fiction, romance, fantasy and science-fiction. Gabaldon notes on her website that if you can read any three pages and then put it down she will give you a dollar.
“What I used to say to people who saw me sitting outside a store with a pile of books and asked (reasonably enough), “What sort of book is this?”, was, “I tell you what. Pick it up, open it anywhere, and read three pages. If you can put it down again, I’ll pay you a dollar.”
I’ve never lost any money on that bet.” (Diana Gabaldon)
I almost won that bet from her. Roughly two years ago, I downloaded the audio version of Outlander to which I am currently listening, tried several times to get through it, and finally stopped trying. Despite Davina Porter’s fabulous voice, I quickly grew distracted with all the characters, the oddball story line of a 1946 setting devolving to 1743 after a nurse, Claire Randall, slips through an open door in time via a standing stone in the Scottish highlands, and there you are, smack dab in the middle of clans and castles. Not my usual cuppa.
Since then, I’ve learned that if I am to enjoy an audio novel, I have to give it the same serious attention — especially at the beginning — that I would a work I am reading. That is, yes, I may wash and slice strawberries while I listen ,however I cannot check out articles at the New York Times online or answer email. This may seem self-evident, but (sigh) I had to learn it for myself. Conversely, of course, the plain fact is that I cannot slice strawberries while reading without risking yet another trip to the emergency room after risky behavior with kitchen knives.
And so, armed with this newly found understanding, I decided to give Outlander another try. This time, it’s not only understandable, but fun. Frankly, I still can’t imagine reading the print version, but with the remarkable narrating prowess of Davina Porter, the story is a delight.
If you’d like to learn more about how the narration process works, here’s an enjoyable 2009 Ageless TV interview with Davina Porter and her husband, Gus. There are only some nods and no more than a word or two from Gus, but he makes a rather adorable sidekick with his good looks and mobile face.
One more note. Most writers have favorite words that creep into their manuscripts multiple times. Now that I have copy-edited a full novel manuscript (Buck’s), my ears prickle at these repeats, especially when they are somewhat unusual words. In Gabaldon’s Outlander, I have heard “declivity” and “exegesis” several times and, while I am only twelve hours into the thirty-three hour and eight minute listen, I expect to find these mellifluous words again. I don’t consider that a flaw, merely a sort of writer’s tell. I’m sure that some decade when I complete my own novel, I will have found a way to work the word ineluctable in there more than once.
Sometimes you can only tell a story backwards. I’ve been twisted up tighter than a morning glory in the sun.
But like this flower, I have a buzzing bee at my center that agitates until I reengage.
Buck and I are home now, but these musings are from my morning notebook on Monday, October 14 at Sawgrass, Ponte Vedra near Jacksonville, Florida:
Drone of an airplane, distant traffic sounds, four white egrets feeding on the pristine golf course, a squirrel ascends a nearby pine tree several times, each trip retrieving a small cone. I see one car crossing a road in the distance. A man shouts, once, “Oh,” as though in a declaratory stretch. Two heavy CAT machines are parked in a bed of pine needles just off the golf cart path. A breeze enters through the fine mesh screen.
Uh oh. It’s Monday here in paradise. Three guys just came roaring up on a motorized utility cart. Two of them are saddling up on the CAT machines. If I’m lucky, they’ll take them and go to work in another area. I hear them speaking Spanish to one another, the “beep beep” backing up sound, and there goes the Bobcat 227 followed by the bright orange utility truck/cart. The bigger CAT is idling. I see the driver banging on something with his fist, as though a gear is frozen. There goes #2, and now I hear #3 running, beeping and moving past our screened porch and out of sight. It’s the big one, basso profundo, with a shovel on the front.
Yep. Definitely Monday. Just now a guy in shorts, orange t-shirt and carrying a ladder walked by on the golf cart path. “Mornin’,” he says. Sounds like he’s cleaning gutters or sawing or something in the condo next door. Back and forth. Glad I have on workout clothes. Clearly not a day for décolletage on the porch.
Have to give it to the guy. He’s taken to going around the long way to get to the condo he’s working on. Still a little noise, but less disturbing. Oops. Spoke too soon. He’s back. But at least he’s a quiet walker.
Late breakfast on the porch yesterday with Buck — very relaxing as always. Later, an expedition to Publix for the week’s groceries, and in the late afternoon a roughly three mile walk to the beach. Dogs on the beach are a welcome sight.
Love the sign on boardwalk before we crossed street to beach club area: WARNING: SNAKES AND ALIGATORS HAVE BEEN SEEN HERE. I saw a thin, frightened-looking woman with scraggly reddish gray long hair clutching a thin, frightened-looking spaniel with scraggly, reddish gray long hair in her arms, both with eyes wide and, I’m sure, pounding hearts. We saw an old man and his old dog, testament to the canard that people and their dogs begin to look like one another. The dog was an ancient white bull dog, stocky and slow-moving with that adorable Winston Churchill mug. I heard his owner speak a word or two. His accent was German, or maybe Austrian. I immediately dubbed the dog “Otto.” The man wore brown clogs. You could see his heels through his thin brown socks.
When Bernhard (could be, why not?) and Otto walked down damp, sandy wood steps onto the beach, a dainty white miniature Poodle raised her ears, strained at her leash and began to bark at Otto. I thought: Fifi loves Otto! Fifi loves Otto!
Otto never looked at her, as though his master was the only object in his consciousness. But I swear, I could hear the deep tympani of his heart beat a little faster. “Fifi, my Fifi.”
Another worker, less polite, shows up. Instead of walking around the palmetto stand, he cuts through behind them within inches of our screened porch. Then the hammering starts. Just like so many “subs” we have known. The framers are a breed apart, their screw you and the horse you rode in on attitude legendary.
An older guy wearing an expensive-looking charcoal colored bicyclist shirts and shorts, his wavy silver hair well-coifed, walks by on the golf path. I thought at first he was using the park to walk or jog, but he stops next door to speak to the workers. No further hammering (yet), lots of one-sided talking. Something about the way he lifts his left foot as he walks makes me think he is annoyed, either at something in particular or as a general life attitude. His face looks a little sour, cold.
Even with noises and intrusions that we’re not accustomed to, it’s becoming clear to me that writing is enlivened by the checking out a wide swath of humanity in their habitat as they go about doing whatever it is they do. Brilliant deduction, huh? Sometimes I have “aha” moments, but more often they are the “well, duh” variety.
Yesterday, for example, I saw a fake-friendly guy in a yellow polo and tan Bermuda shorts in the Sawgrass Beach Club parking lot. (Definitely a sight I wouldn’t normally see in the pine woods of home.) Took me seeing him twice — once on the way to the beach as we walked on the interloper’s (non-member and dog access) boardwalk over to the beach, and then again on the way out when I heard his “Have a wonderful evening” greetings to members leaving the parking lot and watched his dead cop eyes on everyone exiting the non-members boardwalk, making sure we all moved along. Bouncer. This guy was the muscle, main job to keep the riffraff out of the club and away from its members.
Back to my perch on the porch. It’s Monday everywhere this morning. Now a guy is running a gasoline-powered weed-eater out on the golf green. I see two guys through the binoculars, one with a beige ball cap and a long curly strawberry blond ponytail, sporting a beard and a prominent beer gut under his tee shirt. I haven’t seen a single bandy-legged old coot golfer yet, but I have seen a mind-boggling variety of specialty equipment out there clipping, mowing, and primping the course.
Rude guy and silver hair have moved nearly within earshot now. He’s a finger jabber. Big discussion about the roof and exterior of the condo next door, rotted wood on deck, etc. Silver hair is either an old owner who desperately wants to sell or a new owner who bought “as is” and is eager to put his shiny imprimatur on this down at heel 1984-vintage villa.
I leave my eavesdropping on the porch and go inside to hit the shower and prepare for our daily drive to the clinic. I met a woman there yesterday whose husband is being treated for pancreatic cancer. They are staying in a communal home with other patients, inexpensive but no privacy, much less a screened porch overlooking a golf course.
The kitchen remains from a three week stay in a house not my own are strangely dear to me, as if they somehow take on depth and meaning from the sojourn itself. I pack the three remaining onions, one partial head of garlic, one large Idaho baking potato and two smallish sweet potatoes into their own cloth bag, brought from home.
There’s so little left of a box of oatmeal, I put the dregs into a plastic sandwich bag. It will be enough for a breakfast, and I’ll think of these weeks in Jacksonville when I soak it in almond milk and add cinnamon, blueberries and walnuts. I’ll sit in the diner at home and look out at the tall blackjack oak shedding its leaves. I’ll watch the turkeys and deer troll for acorns under the spreading oak out back. I nearly cry for the longing of it sitting here at this pale wood dining table on another coast of Florida, typing and drinking coffee.
It’s only now, when we’re almost done with the regimen, that I begin to realize what a brave front we have maintained. Last night, standing in the kitchen after supper, as we were about to retire to the bedroom with our books and a tot of milk and some soft cookies, Buck suddenly looked as tired as he must be. He looked at me and sighed. “I guess I could have done another week, but I’m sure glad I don’t have to.”
In what seems to be yet another miracle in a string of them, we were able to realign tomorrow’s final appointments into the morning hours. And so we’ll drive home tomorrow afternoon rather than Saturday morning.
Sometimes just one more day means the whole world.
The birds, trees, and flowers are here every day whether I am or not. I like knowing that. Gives me a sense of balance, perspective and serenity. In this chaotic old world, where so many humans practice cruelty and barbarism, our world is still remarkably beautiful. I would like to “sentence” all the evil-doers to a nature-filled island, with prescribed walks with a camera and notebook every day.
Just three days left.Wednesday. Thursday. Friday. Then we’re essentially done until a PET scan six months from now. Buck and I walked a five mile loop yesterday. No one but me could have looked at him and known his left jaw feels numb, and his throat and the inside of his mouth have grown tender and sore. By the three mile mark, I realized this walk, which turned out to be mostly in the hot afternoon sun, hadn’t been one of our better ideas. He never complained, never slowed his step. I could only tell he was uncomfortable by a certain tension in his face and the fact that he turned quiet.
After a good night’s sleep, Buck was ready to go again. We both have a growing excitement that he is getting an A+ in lymphoma recovery. And that we’re going home Saturday morning.
A note about the radiation oncology waiting area. You never know what you’ll see. I’m not talking about the patients and their loved ones. I’m talking dogs (Caring Canines) and entertainers. And you wouldn’t believe how much I look forward to them.
Here’s “Sunday,” a Golden Doodle (cross between a Golden Retriever and a Standard Poodle) therapy dog. And she’s not only photogenic as all get out, but intuitive, tender, and focused on each person in the room, one at a time. I remain dazzled by this beautiful sweetheart.
I’m sorry I don’t know their names, but this talented duo popped into the waiting room one afternoon and startled the heck out of me. I was just fine, tapping my toe and humming along while they sang their first number, “Sea Cruise.” But when they segued into “Stand By Me,” I lost it. Not totally, but right about then Buck emerged from the double doors of the radiation area, and I got up, tears streaming I admit it, and walked over to where he was leaning against a nearby wall, listening, and smiling at me. Man, it was a moment.
Tonight was one of those yummy breakfast-suppers: whole wheat pancakes with an Ambrosia apple chipped up in them and a mug of Tazo Organic Peachy Green Tea. We have an early morning, and are turning the lights out in a few minutes. Well, maybe not all the lights. I’m just finishing a fun suspense novel, “Boy In The Water,” by Stephen Dobyns. I love it when we rent a house and find a shelf or two of books left by others who have gone before us. “Boy In The Water” was published in 1999. Dobyns, a prolific poet and novelist, had not previously crossed my radar screen. I’m looking forward to other entertaining reads from his fertile imagination.
Thanks for your kind thoughts, Deanna, and Richard — appreciate you stopping by.