“Funeral for a Stooge”, Chapter. 5a, Excerpt 12, Archangel.

Finally, the aloneness of the hallway. I hurried down the steps and out to the street and the icy rain. Al would understand. She always did. Outside our gate, I turned in the direction of her house on 115th Street and 109th Avenue.

After walking the nine blocks from my apartment, I stood at the corner across from Al’s giant brown house where she lived with her father Andy. The house always looked huge to me on the corner of the short block it dominated, with its gables and pillared porch that ran all the way around to the chain-link fence along the street. They never used the front door that faced the avenue. You had to walk up the street around the side, under the line of giant maples now bare of leaves, to the low gate that led to Al’s small yard, with its little patches of frosted grass and frozen rosebushes, perfectly aligned along the side of the garage that faced the street.

Andy was an engineer. He liked things neat. Perpendicular, Al said. Al was the opposite. Her room was a collage of books, papers, unusual pets, the bed never made. Maybe that was why they got along so well, like Michael and me. Michael would throw his shirt in one direction, his pants in another. I kept after it, though I didn’t mind. It was better than listening to Teresa yell at him about it, even though I could never nail down a memory of Teresa cleaning anything.

Al and I were the only ones I knew who called our parents by their first names. Well, Al called her father Andy but had called her mother Mother until her mother was killed by a car on her way to the store one day.

I knocked on the glass windowpane of the back door. Al’s bicycle was there leaning against the wall. Seeing it always reminded me of when Michael used to ride me on the handlebars of his bike when I was little. I knocked on the inside door, then opened it and snuck into the kitchen. The house was quiet.

“Al?” I called. “Are you here?” I could hear Bob Dylan whining out “The Times They Are A-Changin’”. I crept in a bit farther, into the darkened kitchen where the only light seeped in through the orange curtains, then into the living room with Andy’s shadowy big chair and his desk full of books and papers in neat piles.

“Alison?” I called a little more loudly.

“Come up here, Daniel.”

I jumped, but was relieved to hear her usual voice of authority. Bossy, the kids at school had

called her, and stuck-up and conceited. I headed up the long, wooden staircase.

“How come it took you so long to answer me, Al?” I called. “You shouldn’t leave the door unlocked when you’re upstairs.”

No answer.

“Some maniac could’ve walked right in,” I said and waited for one of her usual wisecracks like, You’re right, one just did.

I pushed the partly-open bedroom door. The thick, teal-colored wall darkened the room. She was sitting cross-legged on the floor, her head tilted down, looking at her cupped hands. Her thick, dark hair hung forward, covering her face. She had on her favorite bellbottom jeans and navy-blue sweatshirt.

“I have failed,” she said.

“Failed?” I asked. “You?”

“Yes, Daniel. Me. I failed. He’s dead,” she said. “I tried to save him but I was too late.”

“What? Who?” Not Andy!

“Larry,” she said.

“Who?”

“Larry. The last survivor.”

“Survivor?”

“Of the Stooges,” she said. “The Three Stooges, Daniel. Don’t you remember?”

“Um.” I looked around. Al’s bed was strewn with books and papers.

“First, it was Moe,” she was saying. “Then, Curly went last month. Don’t you remember?”

I stared at her.

“My frogs, Daniel. The Three Stooges?”

“Oh, right.” I tried to sound as if I remembered. “What happened?”

“I don’t know. When I looked in the tank, Larry was struggling to breathe.”

“What’d you do, give him mouth to mouth resuscitation?”

She shot me a look. “Don’t you even care?”

“Oh, sure, Al. I care,” I said, feeling guilty for my sarcasm. “Sorry. Where is Larry. Did you flush him?”

“Of course I didn’t flush him!”

“Oh,” I said.

“I’m going to bury him in the backyard next to Moe and Curly under the white rosebush.”

“Oh, right. He’ll like that,” I said.

She shot me another look.

“What’s with you, Daniel?” she said. “You’re usually more sympathetic.”

“Oh, no, Al. I’m sorry, and sympathetic, too.” I made a sad face and hers softened.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen to Chow Mein now,” she said. “He’s sad.”

“Geez,” I said. She had named the catfish Chow Mein because he was supposed to be a Chinese fish and Chow Mein was her favorite dish at our local Chinese restaurant. The frogs (when they were alive) were black and tiny, about a third the size of Chow Mein. Larry the frog, when he was still with us, had been seen hanging around at the bottom of the tank with one of his little black, leathery arms around Chow Mein’s “shoulders”.

“I’m really worried about Chow Mein,” she said.

Chow Mein was frozen in place at the bottom of the tank; Larry, about one inch all around, was stiffly sprawled in the center of Al’s palm in a paper towel. She gathered up Larry’s tiny body with the miniature fishnet.

“Come on, Daniel, help me bury Larry.”

“Oh, sure,” I said. Attending a minuscule frog’s burial seemed fitting. Larry’s sudden death somehow put my problems into perspective. I followed Al in slow funeral procession down the staircase, through the living room and kitchen, and out into the backyard. She stopped short on the back stoop with me tripping up the backs of her shoes. Al remained unfazed. I waited.

She appraised the line of ice-covered rosebushes perpendicular to the garage.

“I need a box,” she said.

“A box?”

“Yes, Daniel, a box. I need a box to put him in.” She turned around and, for the first time since I’d arrived, looked at me.

“Al, are you okay?”

“Daniel, I’m really glad you’re here.”

“Oh, thanks, Al. So am I, but ….”

“Can you please find me a box?”

I was starting to feel a bit uncomfortable. I had problems that I needed to tell Al about.

“Where should I look for a box?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. She looked down at Larry splayed across the palm of her hand. A tear dripped down her cheek, over her upper lip, and down onto her sweatshirt. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen Al cry, not even with the passing of Moe or Curly, and not since the passing of her mother. I moved closer to her and touched her arm.

“Al? Are you okay?” I said. “I know you’re sad about Larry, but I wouldn’t think it would hit you this hard.”

She stood there staring down at poor Larry who seemed to be getting stiffer by the minute. Another tear dropped, landing on Larry’s belly, soaking into his black, leathery skin.

She looked up at me again. “Why does everything have to die?”

Life and death questions. I was itching to tell Al my problem, but….

“Um, Al, where should I look for a box?”

“Go in the kitchen,” she said. “There’s a box of matches by the stove. Dump the matches and we’ll use the box.”

Back to giving orders. A good sign. I had somehow missed Moe’s and Curly’s funerals and wondered what kind of boxes they were lying in under the frozen ground, but didn’t dare ask. I headed back inside the house and found the match box. It was full. I looked around for something to dump the matches into. There was a big red bowl on the counter with a speckled banana and a brown-spotted apple in it. I picked it up and slapped the foot pedal of the steel garbage pail with my foot, turned the fruit bowl upside down over it, then dropped the matches into the bowl.

I ran back to Al and stopped. Her eyes were closed, as if she were in a trance. I wanted to laugh but knew better. Her right arm was lowering slightly, and Larry was tilting dangerously toward the linoleum floor.

“Al?”

“Yes, Daniel,” she said dreamily.

“Larry.”

“Larry?”

“Yeah, Al. Larry. He’s sliding.”

She opened her eyes and lifted her hand.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I won’t let him fall.”

“Okay,” I said. “Here’s the box.”

“Hold it open,” she said and placed Larry’s stiff little body into the box. I thought of Al’s mother’s funeral just a few months earlier, and the long, wooden box they had lowered into the coffin-shaped hole in the ground. Al’s mother had been struck down by a cab crossing the street one day when she was shopping and never came out of her coma. Al had asked me to stay with her that day. I did, and through that night, without sleep. Andy had seemed lost, keeping to himself, which he still continued to do.

“Al? Are you okay?”

A tear slid down her cheek. “Yes,” she said. “Let’s go bury him.”

The Archangel of Hamilton Beach       ebook 99 cents

 

“The Queen Of Ugly”, Ch. 4b, Excerpt 11, Archangel

“Danny, what’s wrong with you? Did something happen?” he asked, with a glare in Teresa’s direction. She responded by picking up the remote control, turning on the TV and changing channels until she came to a movie, I Want to Live, with Susan Hayward on the witness stand, crying to the courtroom, “Have you ever been desperate? Do you know what it’s like?”

I studied the green reel on my fishing pole.

“Danny, what’s wrong?” Michael repeated.

“Frances,” I said through runny nose and salty lips.

“Frances? For cryin’ out loud, it’s always something with her.” He shook his head. “What’d she do this time?”

I didn’t know what else to do. It was better if he heard it from me and not from Frances or, God forbid, Linda. My stomach had gotten closer up to my throat.

“It’s my diary,” I whispered, gripping my fishing pole and its red wrapping paper.

“What?”

“My diary. It’s my diary.”

“You have a diary?” He smiled and shook his head. “Goofy.”

“She took it.”

“Whadyu mean? She’s so freaking stupid.”

“Watch the way you talk about your sister,” chimed in Teresa, as if she had some high respect for Frances that nobody knew about. “And what do you mean you’re keeping a diary. What do you have in there?”

“Nothing for you to worry about,” I said.

“You watch your mouth,” she said and turned back to Susan Hayward.

“She took it to Linda’s,” I told Michael.

He shook his head again. “What’d she do that for?” he said.

“To show Linda.”

“Show Linda your diary? What for?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Probably because it says things in there that she thinks are funny.”

“Oh yeah?” he said, watching the TV.

“Yes,” I said.

“So, who cares? What kind of things?”

“I don’t know. About you,” I said.

“Me?”

“I wrote about you in my diary.”

“Geez, Danny, you’re such a goofball.” He half-laughed, still watching the movie.

“Oh, he’s worse than that,” said Teresa, her eyes still on the television.

“I wasn’t talkin’ to you,” Michael told her.

“You watch it, Mister,” she said, flicking ashes, ignoring that she’d missed the ashtray.

Michael turned back to me.

“I guess she wants Linda to hate me more than she already does,” I said.

“Linda doesn’t hate you,” he said. “She just gets weird sometimes. But why would she care about what you write in your diary, anyway?”

“I don’t know. I guess I just said stuff about how much I, you know, like, wish we could live together and stuff like that.”

“Like I said, You’re a real goofball. So, where’s the big deal?” He shook his head. He seemed to have become more interested in Susan Hayward.

“I don’t know.” That’s not the only entry in my diary Frances will enjoy showing Linda, I thought with a cringe, remembering some of the things I’d written about Al.

“Besides, we already live together,” Michael was saying, his eyes still on the television.

“I know, but I mean like, you know, like later, like whenever we get to leave this place.” Teresa shot me a look just as my stomach arrived in my mouth. I ran into the bathroom, slammed the door, smashed down the latch, and raced to the toilet, leaning over it while my insides came up and out. I hadn’t realized it, but I was still gripping my fishing pole inside its box which had become a part of my body. Then there was banging on the door.

“Danny, what are you doing?” Michael was yelling. “Have you gone crazy or something? Danny, open the door, will ya?”

I held on to the toilet, wishing it would end.

I stayed in the bathroom a long time, sitting on the closed toilet cover now, holding my fishing pole, rocking back and forth, keeping a rhythm. One-two on the forward bend, three-four on the backward. One-two, three-four. One-two, three-four.

Michael finally gave up and stopped banging. The hexagon-shaped white floor tiles moved in and out as I rocked. The tears were dry on my face and tingled. I opened my mouth wide to relieve the itchy tightness of my cheeks. Then I heard voices, coming from the living room. Michael’s, then Linda’s, then Frances’s fat mouth. I didn’t want to hear what they were saying. Holding the fishing pole against my body with my elbow, I slapped my hands up to my ears and moved them in and out to block the voices but then jumped at the new loud banging on the door.

“Hey, Danny! Are you in there?”

Frances.

“Come out here, right now, you little queer!” She cackled. “Don’t you want your little diary back, honey, or should I bring it to your little dream girl?” And that laugh again.

Could I ever hate anyone more? I didn’t want to leave the safe bathroom, pulsating tiles notwithstanding, but I had to get that diary, even though it was already too late. Michael knew about it by now. And Linda. Oh, no. But I had to go out there.

More banging, and the sing-song voice, “Better get out here if you want your precious diary.”

I slid off the top of the toilet. The hexagon tiles swayed with me, as I moved toward the door. I struggled with the latch, then forced it up. The door flew open, and The Thing gripped the knob then filled the doorway, my black and white diary in her puffy hand.

“If you want it, come and get it!” She ran back through the living room and into the kitchen, cackling.

I followed after her cautiously, still clutching my fishing pole. I heard Michael and Linda’s voices in the kitchen. I didn’t want to know what they were saying, I just wanted my diary back, though it didn’t seem to matter anymore. The couch was empty, Teresa back in bed, no doubt. The room still reeked of cigarettes; the television was off. I made my way into the kitchen.

Michael was sitting at the kitchen table, smoking a cigarette, looking more serious than usual, with Linda next to him. Her long, blonde hair flowed past her shoulders. She wore a pink miniskirt and large, gold hoop earrings. It always surprised me how beautiful she was, in sharp contrast to Frances, her so-called best friend. Linda looked at me, shaking her head, lips pursed, eyes squinting. I looked away. Frances stood by the sink, swaying like an idiot.

“Well, aren’t you going to come and get it, Danny?” she sang.

“Frances, give him the book already, will you?” Michael said.

“I’ll give it to him when he comes and gets it,” she said. “Here, little Danny. Here’s your precious diary.”

“Frances! Give it to him right now!” Michael stood up to make his point.

She flung the notebook at me. It hit me in the stomach and dropped to the floor.

“There’s your precious diary,” she said.

I bent down and grabbed it. Then, her voice switched to mean.

“Now, go write some more about how you’re in love with your big brother or is it your little smart girlfriend, you sick little weirdo!” She stuck out her puckered mouth and made loud kissing noises. The queen of ugly.

“Okay, Danny, get rid of that freaking book now, will you please?” said Michael. “Go put it away somewhere or burn it or something. Geez.” He shook his head while Linda glared at me.

With my diary and fishing pole box, I headed for the bedroom. I sat on the bed and opened the notebook to see what The Thing had done to it but found nothing except my own words—one small bit of relief, though little consolation. I closed the notebook and shoved it in deep, back into the tight space between the mattress and box-spring where I kept it. I’d need a new hiding place. Not that it mattered now. But I couldn’t think. I had to get out of there.

I slid open the closet door, stood my fishing pole still in its box into the back corner, and threw an old blanket over it, praying The Thing wouldn’t get her fat hands on it.

The thought of going back into the kitchen brought my stomach back up my throat. I would have to pass all three of them to get out the door. Still a little dizzy, I pushed myself through the living room and past Michael and Linda at the kitchen table. Frances was still at the counter. I didn’t look at Linda again but sensed her staring. Her presence embarrassed me. The words from my diary screamed in my head. I moved straight for the door and turned the latch.

“Where you goin’, Danny?” asked Michael.

“To Al’s,” I said.

“Okay,” he said. “Be careful.”

“Yeah, be careful,” said The Thing. “You never know what you could pick up from your little girlfriend.”

I wanted to hit her. “Drop dead!” I yelled and stormed out to the staircase.

As I slammed the door behind me, I heard Michael say, “Frances, what is your problem?”

END OF CHAPTER 4.

The Archangel of Hamilton Beach

 

Sorry I Strayed!

But I didn’t really stray. I mean, not from writing.

Hello out there in blog land.

This to first apologize for my absence from my blog in recent weeks (months?). I have been tirelessly working to put together an anthology which includes six short stories, memoirs, from five of my students plus my mother’s – bless her heart –  transcribed tape of an interview I did with her a few years ago about her love affair, then clandestine (at least for a little while) marriage to my father.

I’m delighted at the results, though, as I’ve complained about in earlier posts, the cover for the eBook on Amazon isn’t exactly what I wanted, as far as the font styles and sizes, but it’s not too far from the original cover I designed for the paperback, which they did accept, about which I am thrilled!

The title of our class anthology is: Perspectives: Sophisticated Memoirs for an Unsophisticated World –  A Let’s Write! Anthology 

Here’s A Copy of the Published Let’s Write! Anthology’s Copyright Page:

Perspectives: Sophisticated Memoirs for an Unsophisticated World. (A Let’s Write! Anthology) copyright © 2019 Valerie Serrano, editor.

The following stories are published as part of the Let’s Write! Anthology and each story or book excerpt is published here with the express permission of its author.

“An Unexpected Career: The Right Place at the Right Time” copyright © 2018 Roy Teixeira

“Finding Belief: How Cancer Cured My Life” copyright © 2018 Julee Sherman

“All in Our Family: One Wife’s Nightmare” copyright © 2018 Susan James

“Reflections of Our Childhood through My Brother’s Eyes: An Okie’s Memoir” copyright © 2018 Pat Vegsund

“Children of Sicilian Immigrants: A Love Story” copyright © 2018 Libby Maggio

“Kiss Your Ashes Goodbye! A One-Way Boat Trip” copyright © 2018 Joann Bostow

The Anthology’s Dedication Page:

This book is dedicated to the Let’s Write! writing students who have learned to be brave and come out writing, despite any lingering fears that show up when it’s time to publish.

These authors, through their rich stories, demonstrate to the reader how one who’s been “around the block” can tell one’s unique story which, in a surprising way, will appeal to many different types of people.

This Let’s Write! anthology is also dedicated to all those would-be writers out there who think they “can’t write” or that no one would want to read anything they write. To them I say with love: Get over yourself, roll up your sleeves, and Let’s Write!

The Acknowledgements Page:

I must first acknowledge God who puts us here to glorify Him and to love each other. Sometimes the “tough love” necessary from a writing teacher to get writers to bring out the talent they’re holding back out of fear, doesn’t seem like love.

It’s amazing how hard it can be to convince good writers that their writing will touch people out there in ways they could never imagine!

But I’m humbled by the task and always thrilled by the glorious results when ordinary people are finally brave enough, despite their fears, to first see themselves as “writers” and then to trust me and do the work.

I’d like to acknowledge each and every one of my student writers who worked hard to bring this Let’s Write! anthology to life, and I know that you who read their stories will be enriched by the following authors’ memoirs:

Roy Teixeira

Julee Sherman

Susan James

Pat Vegsund

Joann Bostow

I’d like, also, to acknowledge my mother Libby Maggio, who, while not a student of Let’s Write! has been and remains a staunch supporter of same. I thank Libby for her permission to include an excerpt of her transcribed interview in which she tells about her love affair and (clandestine) marriage to my father Anthony Joseph Maggio before and during the Second World War.

The Introduction:

I’ve always loved how the smallest minutiae of detail peculiar to the story of one’s own life in a particular place doing a particular thing can resound for someone else, living a completely different life, perhaps  on the other side of the world, for whom the tiniest details ring true.

This small collection of stories and essays is a reflection of the various writers’ perspectives on the bigger categories of life (and death) via the small details of specific events in their own lives—a kind of slice of life times five here, each author generously sharing “the good, the bad, and the ugly” parts of their lives with us.

After crying and laughing along with them, we come away better, for having been let in to the privacy of their life perspectives.

Here’s a small idea of what to expect in this collection of stories:

~ “An Unexpected Career: The Right Place at the Right Time” by Roy Teixeira

The teenaged boy who landed the job of a lifetime without knowing it.

~ “Finding Belief: How Cancer Cured My Life” by Julee Sherman

The woman who hears that dreaded word “cancer” and must face her fears in silence.

~ “All in Our Family: One Wife’s Nightmare” by Susan James

The young wife and mother who finds out something terrible about her husband.

~ “Reflections of Our Childhood through My Brother’s Eyes: An Okie’s Memoir” by Pat Vegsund

A story filled with tears, laughter, and lots of heart about one Oklahoman family “movin’ on up”.

~ “Children of Sicilian Immigrants: A Love Story” by Libby Maggio

True love from childhood to the separations and trials of War World II.

~ “Kiss Your Ashes Goodbye! A One-Way Boat Trip” by Joann Bostow

Can you talk about cremation with a sense of humor? Read this and see.

My only apology is that these sometimes fun, other times sad, always interesting stories aren’t longer! But stay tuned for these authors to be publishing books and/or blogs of their own in the not-too-distant future.

Valerie Serrano, editor

Santa Rosa, California

January 2019

PS – Please feel free to contact myself or any of these authors:

http://www.LetsWrite.com

valser27@gmail.com

So, there you have it.

All of the above is testimony to where I’ve been (right here) and what I’ve been up to for the past few months. Here’s the link to the eBook ($0.99) ( Perspectives: Sophisticated Memoirs for an Unsophisticated World –  A Let’s Write! Anthologyor free with purchase of paperback. I’ll add the link to the paperback ($3.60) as soon as the book is live. I made the prices so low that I’ll receive virtually no royalties.

At some point I’ll raise the price slightly for expanded distribution, but for now you can’t beat the bargain. Please support your fellow budding writers by purchasing this book and, at the same time, enjoy their honest writing on topics from all walks of life.

Then, there’s Danny…

PS I’ll be posting more of my novel excerpts, too. That’s another apology I owe, keeping you hanging on little Danny’s story, for those who were following it. Sorry about that!

I will shortly be posting the next long-overdue excerpt (#11) in the saga of Danny and The Archangel of Hamilton Beach.

Thank you very much for putting up with me. I’m humbled if you’ve read this far!

Sincerely,

Valerie Serrano

“The Queen of Ugly”, Ch. 4a, Excerpt 10, Archangel

Seven years passed. Teresa had recently turned thirty-five. Frances and Linda were both in high school and still supposedly “best friends”. Michael had graduated and still worked at Grenelli Collision, and, strangely, Linda had become Michael’s girlfriend while he was still in high school.

Eventually, as I’d gotten older—and stronger in Alison’s friendship, though I’d never told Alison of the so-called “doctor” visits—I gained the ability to tell Teresa No more!  Whatever illness I’m supposed to have I’ll live with. I may have even had the courage, at some point, to tell Teresa I was going to ask the school nurse about the treatments. I was surprised but thankful when the “doctors” miraculously stopped coming to the apartment.

I hated sixth grade, and all the other grades, as much as I had hated Sister Razor Blade’s kindergarten class, except for Alison (who now went by Al), of course. And it got worse when Al zoomed past me in school. Her father Andy had made her take a test which proved her to be a genius, though she didn’t like that label. She preferred the word advanced. The schools called her gifted. Andy had hired a slue of private tutors for her. It was some new thing they were doing with what they called whiz kids, and Al graduated high school while I still fought the battle that was grammar school. I had always known Al was smart but never realized it was that serious. When she told me she couldn’t go to school with me anymore, school became a real hell.

It was a cold Saturday afternoon in March as I sat alone on my bed, with Teresa passed out on her bed in her room. Nobody else was home. I dug in between the mattress and box spring for the black and white composition book I used for a diary. Sitting cross-legged on the bed, I opened my diary and reached over for my new Bic ballpoint pen in the nightstand drawer. Today’s my birthday, I wrote. I’m twelve. I know Michael’s the only one who will remember. I love him so much. I hope we can always live together, far away from Teresa and The Thing. We would never have to be separated. Ever.

I stopped writing. Someone was in the room. I looked up. Frances. She stood there, watching me, then, in a fast moment that moved in slow motion, she pounced on me and snatched my diary right out of my hands.

“What are you doing?” I yelled. “Give me that!” But she was already gone. “Give it back to me!” I yelled and ran after her. She raced toward the bathroom. I darted across the living room and jumped on her from behind. She pushed me hard, and I fell back against the living room wall. She ran into the bathroom and slammed the door behind her. I heard the lock catch. I threw myself at the door and pounded my fists on it. I pulled on the doorknob, shaking the wooden door on its hinges.

“Open the door!” I screamed over and over. “Open it! I hate you!”

A few minutes later, the latch clicked, the doorknob turned, and the door flew open with a force that sent me back against the wall. Before I could move, Frances pushed past me, through the kitchen, and out the apartment door, laughing her high-pitched cackle and yelling, “Linda’s gonna love this!”

Linda? What is she doing? I clung to the wall, frozen. There was no way to stop her. She was fat, but fast, and she already had too much of a head start. She was going to show my diary to Linda. I slid down the wall onto the floor.

Just then, Teresa’s bedroom door opened. I pulled myself up, still leaning. Teresa appeared, in a bright pink bathrobe with a cigarette hanging from one side of her mouth. Her voice scraped my entire body like fingernails on a blackboard.

“What’s going on out here?” she said, squinting through the smoke. “What’s all the lousy noise about?”

I kept my eyes on the open bathroom door.

“What are you doing? What’s the matter with you?”

“Leave me alone,” I said. “Please go back to bed.”

“Don’t tell me to go back to bed! Don’t you ever tell me what to do! You hear me?”

“Yes, I hear you.” I’ve heard you from the day I was born, I thought but didn’t say. I kept staring into the bathroom until she gave up and disappeared back into her cave, then I slid down to the living room floor again and stayed there a long time, until I heard footsteps coming up the stairs. I jumped back up. Frances was back already?

“Hey, Shorty. How ya doin’?” Michael, in his work clothes, Yankees cap, the faint scent of his English Leather cologne still with him since he’d gone to work that morning, and, of course, the ever-present cigarette between his fingers.

“What are you doing? You okay?” He sounded like his usual cheerful self, except for the pulsating veins on either side of his forehead, usually a sign of trouble.

“Yeah, I’m okay,” I said.

“You sure, Goofy? You look kinda funny.”

I didn’t want to know what he meant by that. “No, I’m fine,” I said. “Um, did you see Frances outside?”

“No, thank God. Why?” He bounced over to the couch and sat down. By now, Teresa had reappeared and was staring at Michael with her usual begrudging look. He ignored her.

“Um, she just left here a little while ago,” I told him. “I thought maybe you saw her.” I stayed propped up against the wall, trying not to slide down again.

“Nope,” he said. “Why? Does it matter?” Even though he was sitting, he kept moving as if restless.

“No, it doesn’t matter,” I said. I realized Michael would have been driving up the block with Frances running in the opposite direction. The wind outside blew right through the walls and into my bones. I didn’t know if I had stopped hugging myself, or rocking or shaking. No wonder Michael had said I looked funny.

“Oh, here,” he said, and jumped back up and into the kitchen. Teresa took the opportunity to steal his place on the couch. He returned to the living room with a package about two feet long and wrapped in red paper.

“Here’s your birthday present.” He poked my stomach with it, though his smile turned down when he glanced over at Teresa.

“Here,” he said. “Take it, will ya? You want your birthday present, don’t you, ya little goofball?” He smiled again.

“Yeah, I want it,” I said. Boy, did I want it. But the image of Frances and Linda shuffling through the pages of my diary flashed inside my head, and turned around in my stomach.

“Aren’t you going to open it, Shorty?” he asked. “You don’t look too excited.”

“Oh, I’m excited. I’m very excited.” I knew my smile was crooked because I could feel my face all twisted up. I tore open the thick red paper and stared at the cardboard box for a minute, confused. Then through the cellophane I saw what it was—a fishing pole, in two pieces in the box, and just like Michael’s but brand new with a shiny, dark green chrome reel. I wished we could run right then with it to Hamilton Beach.

“You like it?” he asked with a big smile. He put out his cigarette in Teresa’s ashtray and took out another one from the crumpled Camels pack in his shirt pocket and lit it.

I nodded. I wanted to say thank you, but couldn’t make any sounds.

“Hey, kid, what’s wrong? Are you crying? Don’t you like it?”

“I love it,” I blubbered out. “It’s the best fishing pole in the world.” I sounded as if I had just turned two, not twelve.

END OF EXCERPT 10 FROM CH. 4, The Archangel of Hamilton Beach

“You’ll Get An F.”

“What?” I said out loud to nobody, then laughed. “An F? Moi? Can’t be. She must have me mixed up with one of her students who can’t write.”

“I’m your straight-A, remember?” I said to the email, which I had finally received (years ago) from my undergraduate writing teacher on my essay proposal. (We had to send in a proposal of the topic about which we intended to write, before starting our term paper for the class.)

For the perfectionist that I have been since kindergarten, to be threatened with an F was a blow to the chest that took my breath away. She must have made a mistake (though I took an F years later in graduate school for refusing to edit pornography…but that’s another story).

I sat down, ready to write the teacher back and complain that she had the wrong student, but then took a moment to read further into her email, and that’s when I saw the reason for her indictment.

Her reason for giving a straight-A writing student an F for a term-paper topic was explainable in one word. You might say she gave me the F for Focus (or the lack thereof).

Keep Your Eye on the Ball

What was the topic I proposed that she said would bring me an F? Introversion—being an introvert in an extraverted world. She said it was too broad.

She said if I were planning a book-length work on the topic, it might have been acceptable because each chapter could address a different aspect of the issue, but for an article it was much too broad.

Getting Warmer

So after hours of deliberation I came up with a subject more specific: Being an introvert in the typically extravert world of the workplace. I sent it back to her, confident, even smug, satisfied that I’d given her what she wanted, and ready to start on my term paper – until I received her prompt reply: “You’ll still get an F.”

“What? Are you kidding me!” I yelled at the computer. As I read through her email I saw that word again: “Focus. Bring it down to something much more specific,” she wrote. “A specific problem with at least one specific solution.”

I had thought being an introvert in an extraverted world was specific. In my mind, I was zooming in on introverts versus the rest of the world of categories out there into which you can slip almost all the people you encounter, such as being short in a world of tall people, being blond, being overweight, being a vegetarian among carnivores (or vice versa). The list is endless.

Just a Little Bit Closer

So I wrote down my key word: Introverts. Okay, so what’s their problem? Being one myself, I had no shortage of a list of problems, such as: malls, busy restaurants or other public places; parties; networking events; the workplace!

And that’s where I landed. For me, the workplace has always been an office of one type or another or a classroom, with coworkers, office politics, fellow teachers and admin with whom to mix in the break and conference rooms, whether one wanted to or not.

But the more I looked at it, the more I saw that others will have workplaces such as various outdoor settings, factories, and so many other different kinds of backdrops. Widening my thinking and realizing this fact showed me why “introverts in the workplace” was still too general.

After going over the initial research I had done for my introvert proposal, and writing different versions of topics in order to find one that clicked, the title at which I arrived and that she accepted as being focused enough was “How Introverts Can Survive and Thrive in the Office”.

V Is for Vortex

When I think about it now, I view it as an upside-down triangle, an inverted vortex or V, to represent the situation.

At the top of the vortex is the topic at its most general, introversion versus extraversion.

At the bottom is the specific application on which I finally landed, the introvert surviving and thriving the extravert office.

In the middle somewhere is the introvert in the more generalized “workplace”, and so many other aspects of introversion.

In Summary

1. Introvert versus extravert world: Too broad.

2. Introvert in workplace: Still too broad.

3. How an introvert not only gets by, but thrives, in what is considered to be a hostile environment to most introverts—the office, with all its implications: Specific.

Not to Put Too Fine a Point on It…

Other similar approaches might have been: How an introvert spouse survives and thrives an extravert husband or wife, or the best ways to nurture your introverted child in an extraverted school environment.

There are many possibilities along the spectrum, but the narrow point of focus at the bottom of the vortex is the goal. However it gets narrowed on the way down, in the end it reaches as fine an application as possible.

It should be obvious that this idea of focus and the inverted vortex is not just for college papers or grades. This should guide all writers whenever we sit down to approach any given topic.

The Enemy: Generalization

Beware generalization in all its manifestations in writing—not just regarding subject but with every word you commit to paper or screen, within any sentence, paragraph, chapter, book—generalization is always a danger by which to be enticed. I say enticed, because to generalize is to take the easy route.

I will say, I do disagree with my undergrad writing instructor back then on her comment that my general topic might have been okay for a book-length work, though she could have been saying that to lessen the blow of pointing out my bad choice for the proposal. But, depending on the kind of book a writer was proposing, I’d normally tell a student the same thing she told me: Book-length or not, it’s too broad.

One More Thing

In case you were wondering, I wrote the paper using citations from articles and books on the subject, and she must have been happy with my approach and conclusions, because when it was all over, I got an A on the finished paper. (I also learned a few things from my research, being an introvert myself.)

And I thanked the nice lady for her guidance and warnings, instead of just letting me go ahead with my too-general topic and getting the F, breaking my (almost) perfect record.