In observance of National Novel Writing Month (no, I’m not attempting to write a novel in 30 days), I’ve decided to share the draft first chapter of my novel-in-process. Notes follow.
We were busy since before dawn, with the furniture and last of the boxes and luggage. We said our goodbyes with a great deal of hugging and “I love you,” and “we’ll see you very soon, for Thanksgiving,” and “it’s all for the best, you’ll see. It’s God’s will, I believe that.” Dad took pictures of us beside the car, and it was only when he asked one of the guys from the moving company to take a shot of the three of us in front of the house that Mama began to softly cry. Now I can still feel the press of my teeth in my lower lip, which allowed me to save my tears for after they were gone.
Walking back through the farm to my house, I become aware of many sounds besides the wind. I can hear my shoes scuffing on the packed dirt and gravel. A few birds twitter in the bushes and fall silent as I pass. A small plane is heading north — a tiny white cross in the western sky — and I am whispering a prayer. I don’t remember deciding I should pray but there it is, again and again. Something about Jesus and mercy, and how great a sinner I am. It might be true. You might be called upon to judge. Just keep in mind, maybe it was all my fault but it was never my idea.
I love these trees, every one of them. They are all the family that I have left in this place. Trees make a good life for people with simple dreams, and my family has made a decent living here. I am alone now and from now on, left behind in this great expanse of trees. Being left behind feels like death, or like I imagine death will be. No matter how clearly or how long you see it coming, it happens suddenly and it’s a shock, no consolation to be found. I remain in the orchard where I have always been but now it feels like I’ve been buried here. No doubt that’s coming soon enough.
My workshop is a hulking reddish-brown barn. It is fading in the sun and rain, from what was once a deep and rusty red. We always called it the old barn. I believe that I might paint it blue to match my house. The old house and barn sit side by side on a flat half acre surrounded by roughly forty more of mature and healthy California fruit. Apples, almonds, and prunes mostly, no citrus, a few persimmon trees. This is my inheritance. No, my devise and birthright; my quarter share of the liquidated hopes and dreams of three generations on this place. Behind me, half a mile to the north, stand the newer — and now freshly empty — house and barn that belonged to my parents. Those buildings and their eighty acres of orchards and vineyards, and forty that belonged to my brother, have been sold to a San Francisco company. I’ll have new neighbors now, I guess.
Behind my barn is an oak tree, and hanging from a low branch on a length of chain is an old lunchbox. It’s the kind men carried to blue collar jobs fifty years ago, made of steel with a dome-shaped lid. Our grandpa would have called it a dinner bucket or a lunch pail, remembering when men on farms and in factories carried their meal in a simple lidless pail, covered with a towel or cloth to keep the food warm.
I know it’s just a sad piece of scrap to you, hanging from its chain above the weeds, moving just a little in the breeze. And I’m just a middle-aged guy in work clothes, alone in the world and standing out here studying old truck tires and useless lengths of pipe. So maybe I’m a piece of scrap myself, leaning into that same wind. But I want that old lunchbox. I’m the only one left who still remembers what it meant, so I have to reclaim it, see it again as it was when the paint was fresh. It doesn’t need to hang there anymore, so I unhook it, carry it into the shop and set it on the bench. Tomorrow I will clean it and paint it, and maybe I’ll take it into the house.
I had bad dreams when I was small. Good ones too, of course; at six or seven years old everyone has vivid, beautiful dreams. After a nightmare I would go to my parents’ bedroom door and call out for Mama until they woke. Then my mother would come and sit on the edge of my bed. She would hug me and straighten the covers, kiss my cheek and say my imagination stayed awake after I went to sleep, and that sometimes my imagination was afraid for no good reason. She said I was safe and well, tucked into my own bed in our own good and solid house. Mama and Dad were just down the hall and would not let anything hurt me. There was my little brother in his bed and he wasn’t worried by dreams. Papa James was right upstairs and God himself was in His heaven, never sleeping. And we had dogs in the house to guard us all, besides.
Mama said that dreams were just ideas, made of nothing. I believed her then as I’ve believed my mother all my life. Dreams are only dreams, except for one. There was one nightmare that she never knew about because it might be the one to prove her wrong. Maybe there are ideas that render parents powerless, that have no pity on families and are not impressed by courage and love. I never shared it with anyone because I feared that someday it could come true. It would step through the screen between mind and world and become my truth. It would come from wherever prescient fate is born and stand here on our land despite all our love for each other or maybe because of it, regardless even of God because maybe this dream came down from Him.
I dreamed I was standing in front of the Blue House on a gray and windy afternoon. I was arriving home from school, and the school bus let me off in front of the house. Which is strange, not just because there is no public road in front of the house, but because that’s not where we lived. Uncle Charlie lived in the blue house by himself.
I look up at the house and it’s wrong. Everything in my dream is gray and charcoal gray running into black. All the beautiful bushes and trees are bare brown sticks, just stumps, and the windows of the house are dark. The glass and the curtains are gone. It’s just a shell, lifeless and abandoned. I run forward, calling their names, calling and crying but I cannot run all the way to the house, or up the steps to the front door. Something makes me turn and go around the side, by the driveway. I can see into the windows where there are no windows in life, and there is nothing inside. It’s just an empty shell, a box, without even interior walls, and certainly no people there to welcome me.
Now I run down the driveway, through the gate, and see the back yard is also gone. Nothing but barren desert ground, tattered papers fluttering and clinging to the twigs. The great mulberry is a stump with a thin murder of crows. From the back, the windows are void sockets again, glassless and dark. Inside it’s like the cavern of a barn, nothing at all. So I turn and run, West and away from the house, down the back yard and turn and look again and stand in this place exactly where I’m standing now. So that from the back of the house I see the spirits of my family rise – one by one – like forms of smoke. They rise from the windows and float like balloons in slow motion: Dad and Mama, Papa James and Uncle Charlie, and my little brother last of all. They rise and disappear.
From my house I walk along another farm road east through an acre of almonds, to where a spur of railroad tracks cuts though our land. The farm road rises up to cross the tracks with rust-brown spikes and crossties running on the mounded ground, and stems of oat grass volunteering at the verge. Two white crosses, chest high, stand beside the right-of-way. Except for the railroad and the gap in the orchards it creates, there is nothing around me but those crosses and one hundred sixty acres of trees. Tomorrow I will have just forty left and that will have to be enough.
I have faith that I will have enough, that my life will always be enough. There is always work to do, so I get up every day and do my share. But I’m just Marty, and you might as well know it from the start. I am not godly, rich, or talented and James Martin Geister is the brightest light of no one’s life. I love, I have loved, I am loved, and one summer at this crossing I saw something strange, terrible, and haunting. It changed my life, then I went on. I kept the land with my father and grandfather, and carried within me a faded knot of grief and hope and amazement, as I was swept along by time.
I believe that all of my life has been the ripples spreading out from that moment; ripples that spread without a stone or any wind at all, but flow from sorrow and absence, from what could have been if not for too much love. There was a gift too easily given at too high a price. So I think about that summer every day. I listen in solitude and it comes – vaguely, softly – like a trumpet on a radio, playing in another room.
The years have appeared like these tracks out of nowhere but out of the orchards that have always been our birthright and identity, and lead on to a point too often lost in the tule fog. So time is the matter before us, or memory and what it makes of a man and leaves of him as it gathers up the chips of wood and broken glass that time will always make of life. The story of me and my little brother Bo, our parents and family, and all the cloudy shards of memory still left for me to find and sift and puzzle out, is the story of this land as well. You need to know about the land, and what we built and lost, and what remains.
I remember I stood here with my little brother – we held hands – and watched men raise these markers up. They painted a name on each cross and then the year: 1972. We planted flowers all around the base of them, but those are gone. I have walked past these crosses, ridden and driven and run past them, thousands of times. But it never seemed so true until today that in all this world, for what they represent, I will not be forgiven.
© 2013 by J. Kyle Kimberlin / Novel Work in Process
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
I have questions and misgivings about this work and I would be grateful for feedback from other writers and readers.
- Is it me, or does it feel cobbled together, choppy, lacking flow?
- Is there enough action to draw you in, or does it seem like I’m telling too much and not showing enough?
- Do things make sense – especially the dream?
- Do you have sympathy for the character by the time you reach the end, or does he seem like a crybaby who makes you want to put this down and go walk your cat or something?
- Are you intrigued by his promise to tell you about the terrible event in his past, or is it basically … meh?
- Is there anything else you’d like to share about your reaction?
Thank you for taking the time to read this and leave comments!