Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Another Winning Entry

This is the "beginning of book" entry that won first place in historical fiction category at the American Night Writers Association conference in Phoenix in February. Enjoy. Would love to get feedback.

Journey to Mormon
by Pamela Williams

Chapter 1
About 149 BC, on the battlefield

            Alma splashed his face in the basin of water at the washstand. He’d shave later, after morning maneuvers. Some of the men didn’t shave at all, but he hated the itch of a beard. Maybe his head would stop pounding by then and he wouldn’t be in danger of cutting his own throat.
Malachi, his aide, came into the tent with a fresh, clean tunic. “Good morning,” he chirped, making Alma wonder again how this man could smile at this time of day.
“That’s debatable,” he mumbled into the towel. Of course, Malachi wasn’t troubled with nightmares, so naturally he’d be cheerful. A clear conscience, Alma thought. That’s what does it.  “How goes it in the camp? Has the supply wagon arrived?”
            “Yes, sir. Lots of excitement,” Malachi replied, placing the tunic on the cot. “It’s the king as well.”
            “We only expected a shipment of arms today.” Alma shook his head and frowned.
            “But we got much more than that.”
            “Noah usually avoids coming near the battlefield.” Alma had been around the king for many years and thought him to be a very ordinary man who didn’t inspire awe. “It’s dangerous.”
            Malachi shrugged. “I’ve heard he's not always a predictable man, in some ways.”
“I assume that means Captain Gideon’s command meeting will be delayed.” He sat on the cot, trying to rub the sleep from his eyes and the tiresome, repeating nightmare from his brain. Overhead, the fragment of a moon was always a menacing smile as the deserted street gaped, becoming a chasm he couldn’t step across. He teetered on the edge as grotesque writhing demons with bony hands and long fingernails rose up, seizing his ankles, pulling him down. He’d clutch at the side to keep from falling and kick to free himself, but their grip only tightened. Gasping, grasping, losing his hold, he’d weaken, then fall, tumbling over and over, but always waking before he hit bottom, whatever that might have been.
“That’s correct, sir, but the king’s visit will probably be short.”
            Regrouping his thoughts, Alma raked his fingers through the curly blond hair he sometimes pulled back with a clasp. “Well, we can hope so. Find some food while I dress.”
            “Right away, sir.” He turned to go but stopped. “Oh. And your uncle is here, as well as all the other priests. Makes you wonder…”
            “…what’s going on in Shilom.” Alma frowned. “Yes. Maybe it won’t be such a dull day after all. Send in Uncle Reuben.”
            Alma stood to pull the tunic over his head and fasten the sash around his waist. These nightmares always left an ache behind his eyes. Malachi was sure dreams had some deep spiritual meaning, but Alma had no patience with that kind of hazy speculation. They’d begun when the Nephite army was forced to stay put and hold their place in the battle line to protect the ground they’d won. It was not the way Alma would have preferred to spend a long rainy season. Instead of marrying Jerusha and going on with the life they’d planned, he’d been detained. It might have been different if Captain Gideon had only listened to me.
            “What a dreadful place,” Uncle Reuben sneered as he entered the tent. “How can you live like this?”
            Alma eyed his uncle with disdain and bit back the sharp sarcasm that jumped into his mouth. “Good morning to you, too, Uncle. What’s going on? We had no idea anyone was leaving the comfort of the city today to come all the way out here in the mud.”
“Unfortunately, the priests have to meet together. Pressing business.”
“Then maybe you don’t want to wait…”
            “But I do.” He sat on the cot and patted the space beside him. “You have to tell me what happened. Things were going so well we thought the war was over, and then we got word that it wasn’t.”
            Alma sat beside his uncle. “Worst day of my life.”
“When I didn’t get a letter from you explaining things, I knew it must have been something you couldn’t put in writing.”
“Correct assumption.”
“Smart boy.” Reuben waited. “Well?”
 “After we got reports from the spies, we met together to plan the strategy for the next campaign. Even as a principal sub-commander, I still have to fight for my proposals before the real battle begins. Then Gideon presents two or three options to Laban and Haman, and they decide what we’re going to do.”
“Yes,” Reuben said. “They know what the king would prefer.”
“Frankly, I wish we had military men making the decisions instead of two of the king’s priests trying to pretend they know something about making war.”
“What was your role in it?”
Alma sighed. “I told them Berechiah’s plan was the wrong risk at the wrong time in the wrong place. Strong words, but I knew we’d be walking straight into an ambush, and it would cost us too many men. I showed them on the map why it was too risky. I read them the spies reports.”
“What did Gideon say?”
“Nothing. He sat there looking thoughtful, alternately rubbing his forehead and pulling on his lower lip the way he does when he’s deep in pensive deliberation. Berechiah insisted that we could find a way to distract and confuse the Lamanites. That pass is the most direct way into Shemlon and we had to take it.”
            “But the Lamanites would know that,” Reuben said. “They’ll be waiting for you with their best marksmen aiming at your necks.”
            “Exactly. And there wasn’t another way to avoid the pass, except in my plan. Granted, it was risky, too, but this is a war. We do have to take chances occasionally, but if we’re careful we can control the outcome.”
            “And Gideon wouldn’t listen?”
            “Malachi and I stayed up half the night revising the plan, working out the possible problems, but the next morning Laban and Haman chose Berechiah’s recommendation and began planning to carry it out.”
            “Sorry, lad.”
            “I can still feel that lump of disappointment in my chest, in addition to the dread for the disaster I knew it would be. Two weeks later, the maneuver went forward, and then Captain Gideon recognized the flaws in the plan, but it was too late to change.”
Reuben clicked his tongue. “And the loss meant sitting on the battle lines for the entire rainy season…”
“…enduring the copious downpours and impossible mud that makes combat treacherous.”
Reuben sighed. “And it gave you plenty of time to contemplate your miscalculations.”
            Alma nodded. “To his credit, Gideon called me into his tent and acknowledged the regrettable results. When he apologized, he made a very interesting observation, Uncle. He said he’d learned the hard way that I’m not here just because of your wealth. He said he realized now that I understand what we’re doing.”
            Reuben snorted. “Small consolation.”
            Alma smiled at the irony of Gideon’s apology. “At heart I know I’m a privileged young man acting a part to execute a war I despise. In fact, everyone knows you used your influence with the king to obtain this advisory position for me, but I’ve still had to prove my worth.”
            “You knew that before you joined the army, didn’t you?”
            “Oh, yes. I didn’t go into it blindly. To the others, especially the careful captain, I appeared to be some presumptuous rich boy simply playing at war, and though I hated the fighting, I knew I had a gift for strategy. I pushed every day to validate it, just to prove their assumptions wrong.”
            “Is there anything I can do? What does the king need to know? Should the others be punished?”
            Alma chuckled. “No, Uncle. We play nicely together most days. Besides, this war isn’t a permanent condition. Although we lost that battle, it simply made the men more alert, quicker to obey commands and keep their skills sharp so that when the war resumes at the end of the rainy season we can make short work of it and go home.”
“Speaking of home, I brought you a letter from Jerusha.”
            Alma took it like a thirsty man reaches for water. “How is she?”
            “Lovely as ever. You're a lucky man. Everyone says so.”
            Alma grinned. “Thank you. I know it.” He caressed the letter in his hand. “They'll be waiting for you. Let's see what Malachi has found…”
            Reuben rolled his eyes. “Oh, go ahead and read it. I’ll just sit here in awe of your complete silliness.”
            “Thank you.” He untied the letter. “You’re right. I’m completely irrational when it comes to Jerusha.” He held it up. “You see? It isn’t very long. It won’t take…”
            “Just read,” Reuben snapped.
            Alma read quickly. “Dearest Alma, when your uncle volunteered to carry a letter to you, every logical thought flew out of my head, so this probably won’t make much sense. He’s waiting and I’m writing quickly. I didn’t want to miss this opportunity to tell you that I’m well and happy and hoping you are, too. I spend a lot of time with my cousin Miriamne, of course, and her husband Helam. They treat me like their own daughter. Last month one of my neighbors asked me to help his children with their school lessons, so I’ve begun tutoring them. It’s very fulfilling to help them understand reading, writing, and sums. It helps me pass the time, but it’s also enlightening. I never thought about it before but perhaps this will prepare me to teach our children. Oh, please hurry home, my love, and we’ll go on with our lives just the way we planned. Sending all my best hopes and wishes for a safe return, your loving Jerusha.” He sighed and glanced through the letter again. Children. She wanted children. They’d never discussed that before. He rolled up the letter and slipped it under the flat pillow on the cot, still lost in the nearness he felt as he read her words.
            Reuben cleared his throat to draw Alma’s attention. “Ready to go on with your life?”
            Alma smiled when Uncle Reuben’s words echoed Jerusha’s sentiments. “Don’t let me keep you. I’m sure the others are waiting.”
            Reuben paused. “Alma, you can probably guess that the priests are divided. Only that could constrain the king to risk coming out here today.”
            Alma fought to get his mind out of the letter and into the conversation. “A healthy debate brings out all the best ideas, whether it’s on the battlefield or in the palace. Do they usually agree on everything?”
            “Ordinarily someone is willing to be persuaded, but this is an unstable situation.” Reuben paced as he spoke. “A religious preacher named Abinadi is causing an uproar in Shilom, and it's dividing the citizenry. We thought we’d seen the last of these partisans when Noah put Zeniff's cronies out of office, but this man is going around Shilom proclaiming that corrupt, sinful men lead the city, men who will suffer dire consequences if they do not change.”
            “Corrupt, sinful men? He used those words?”
            Reuben nodded. “That's what he calls the priests.”
            Alma chuckled at this petty absurdity. “Well, what's the question?”
            “Some of them think we should arrest him, and others think we should find some way to… uh… eliminate him.”
            “But there's no legal way you can do either.”
            Reuben shrugged. You know how it is, Alma. Make a decision and you’re responsible for it, so no one wants to make a decision like this, but it’s a direct affront to all of us.”
            Alma secured the sandals on his feet. “What courageous leaders we have in Shilom.
            If we were to change a few laws, the decision would be made for us.
            “Then you wouldn’t be culpable.
            Reuben shrugged. “We could do that if we had to, but…”
            “Our laws are based on long-standing Nephite tradition Zeniff brought when he came here a generation ago. You can't change them on a whim. Are they really considering it?”
            “No one wants to, but this old fellow is stirring up the people more and more, making us look like villains. We have to take some kind of decisive action to protect ourselves.”
            Alma tied his tunic at the waist. “Don't you have legal counsel?”
            Reuben shrugged. “We've never needed it before. Unfortunately, citizens are beginning to pay more attention to government matters.”
            “It seems obvious to me—find someone who knows the law to advise you, maybe the governor at the academy of law. He carries lots of clout.”
            Reuben smiled. “I thought of that, but instead, I found you.”
            Alma put up his hands in a defensive gesture. “I don't want to get involved in anything that has to do with religion. People take it seriously.” He shook his head. “No, it’s too volatile.”
            Malachi came in, bringing bread, cheese, and wine. “Excuse me, sir.”
            “Thank you, Malachi,” Alma said, gesturing to the table.
            Reuben smiled and coaxed, “Come to this meeting with me, Alma, just this once.”
            Alma sat on a stool next to the table and wrapped a chunk of cheese in a slab of bread. “But I'm not…”
            “It doesn't matter. I'll say I brought you in as a legal adviser. You shouldn’t miss this chance to impress Noah. You could use his influence. After this meeting, he’ll go back to Shilom but he’ll remember you and your good advice. Do this for me and I promise I won’t ask you to get involved again.”
            Alma frowned and gulped the wine. “All right. Let’s go.”
            Reuben paused. “Why don’t you… uh… wear your armor? It gives the air of authority.” Alma looked skeptical. “Come on. For the king’s sake.”
            He rolled his eyes and chewed more bread and cheese while standing with his arms out to accommodate the armor Malachi buckled onto his upper body. He could make a small concession to please Reuben if possible, but he vowed to stay out of that religious business. He took the sword Malachi handed him and fastened it in place. “All right. Let’s go.”
            He grabbed more cheese and bread to eat as they walked to the command tent.
            When they arrived, members of the kind’s guard stood aside to let them enter. Most of the other priests had assembled, but Reuben went straight to the king. “You remember my nephew Alma, don’t you, sir? He finished just last year at the academy of law.”
            “Oh yes.” Noah nodded his recognition of the younger man. “From a distance I’ve watched you grow up, and now you’re someone to help me keep the peace. Very good.”
            Alma started to protest; keeping the peace isn’t what lawyers do. He saw Reuben’s slight shake of his head and merely smiled. “I’ve only recently finished my studies, sir, and haven’t had a real chance to practice my profession yet, but I look forward to serving Shilom in some capacity when the war is over.”
            Noah regarded him. “Your uncle tells me you were a superior student.”
            “He tells that to anyone who’ll listen.” Alma raised an eyebrow at his uncle.
            “I asked him to come to this meeting in case we need legal advice,” Reuben explained.
            “Excellent idea,” Noah said with a pleasant smile at Reuben. “I expect we will.” Grasping Alma’s shoulder, the king lowered his voice. “When we’re finished with this unpleasant little involvement here with the Lamanites, I want you to come to me, and I’ll make sure you find a position suitable for the nephew of my friend Reuben.”
            “I certainly will do that, sir,” Alma replied as Reuben cooed his delight. “Thank you for that generous offer.” Noah moved on to speak with another priest, and Alma sat with Reuben apart from the others.
            “You see,” Reuben murmured. “What did I tell you?”
            “You don’t think he means that, do you. He’s a man who does things to make himself look good, not because he has generous inclinations.”
            “We can find a way to help him remember and ensure that he keeps his word.”
            “Nonsense.” Alma snorted. “He doesn’t mean it. And he’s had too much wine already this morning to remember anything he said to me.
            “Just watch for an opportunity.”
            Laban, Gideon's fellow captain, also a priest, came into the tent a moment later. Here’s some food, if you’re hungry. He handed a basket to the king and another one to the priests before he sat next to his kinsman Amulon, the chief high priest. They were business partners and married to sisters from a prominent family in Shilom.
            “We’re all here now,” Amulon told the king. “You can begin, sir.”
Noah smiled, and as his priests turned their attention to the meeting, he cleared his throat and paced among them. “As you know, we’re here to discuss a problem in Shilom that needs immediate attention.”
Looking around at all these powerful men who determined Shilom’s destiny, Alma remembered the times, years ago, when he accompanied Reuben to council meetings, no more than a boy they usually ignored. Watching their deliberations had become his preparation for the academy of law. Quiet and perceptive, he learned more than anyone imagined. But that was before the academy, he mused, before the war, before Jerusha, before I had ambition. He observed again now, noting how these men had changed in the years he'd known them, but their attitude toward him would still be the same—he was just a boy.
Noah summarized the issue, the problem of this preacher condemning them, predicting dire consequences for their behavior, and insulting them with talk of repentance. As the debate went back and forth, some minimized the threat while others exaggerated it.
Jasher took a piece of fruit from the basket and passed it on. “He’s speaking of us,” he reminded them, as if no one understood the implications. “He says our enemies will have power over us unless we repent in sackcloth and ashes. I’ve never seen such brazen accusations.”
 “He’s saying these things about all of us?” Haman asked.
Every one,” Jasher answered. “This old fellow has charged us all.”
“He must be mad,” Noah said.
“One person’s madness is another person’s common sense,” Reuben observed.
“Religious madness is the worst of all,” Jasher responded.
“We must do something to stop him,” Noah sputtered in his outrage.
“What choices do we have?” Laban asked.
“Those of us in the city aren’t unanimous,” Noah replied, “so we need the entire council of priests to make the decision.”
Or maybe he’s trying to spread the blame around, Alma guessed.
“We have two choices,” Jasher explained. “We can banish, or we can arrest, convict, and publicly execute. I say execute. End this thing before it grows too slippery. There’s really no other logical choice.”
Alma cleared his throat and spoke. “Convict on what charge?”
Jasher regarded Alma and asked, “Your nephew has some business here, Reuben?”
“Only to answer our legal questions,” Reuben replied. Alma shrugged and gave the rotund priest a vapid smile.
Noah intervened. “He has my permission, Jasher. Is that good enough?
Jasher raised his eyebrows in surprise. “But sir, I would have advised against it.”
“That’s why I didn’t consult you.”
Refocusing attention, Laban crystallized the issue for everyone. “As I understand it, we can’t arrest a man for saying irritating things. Tiresome as it is, everyone in Shilom still has a right to an opinion and a right to speak it in public.”
Yes, even if what he says makes us uncomfortable, Alma thought.
“We have to be careful,” Esrom reminded his colleagues. “Think how the execution of a religious leader, even a fanatical one, would look to the people who follow him.”
“How many really believe him, anyway?” Amulon prowled the space. “Isn’t this something that will pass with time, like a fever, or a carbuncle?”
Reuben frowned. “We can’t count on that.”
“You can’t kill him either,” Pahor said with a sigh. “Everyone will think you’re afraid of him. That would destroy public confidence.”
Esrom snorted derisively. “Well, I am afraid. Let’s be honest. Men like this have a gift for stirring up others, and then we might lose control of the people, and their confidence as well.”
Haman took the food basket from Esrom and chose a piece of bread. “That’s right. Our safest course would be to banish him. People have short memories.”
Reuben glanced around at his colleagues. “Then write up the banishment order and carry it out. This doesn’t have to be such a hard decision.”
“But what law did he break?” Laban asked.
“We can find something,” Amulon answered.
Alma cleared his throat again. “There's no law, you know, against being a sliver in the toe of government.”
“There's always something,” Amulon insisted.
“I agree.” Pahor pulled off a bit of his bread and stuck it in his mouth. “I was in favor of execution before, but I’ve softened my view.”
Esrom nodded. “I say banish.”
“I’ll go along if that’s what you decide.” Amulon smiled from the corner where he still paced. “As chief priest, I think this body should declare that in addition to the banishment, it will be illegal to subscribe to this man’s religion.”
Pahor scratched his head. “Can we do that? Aren’t people supposed to be able to choose for themselves? We don’t want to be accused of breaking our own…”
“Freedom of religion is established law,” Alma reminded them. “You can’t force anyone to be religious, but you can make it uncomfortable for them if they go to extremes.”
“Glad of that,” Pahor muttered.
Laban, stifling a yawn, said, But I think we can discourage his followers. Isn't that right, Alma? We can banish the old man with just an order signed by the king, and that’s sure to make them think before they act to defend him.”
Alma nodded. “Yes, there is a statute that supports banishing a public menace. Its only restrictions are vague, with multiple interpretations.”
“Don’t we have to have public complaints before we can banish?” Pahor asked.
“I'll give you one right now,” Amulon volunteered, “and it wouldn’t be hard to arrange for a few more from other prominent citizens.”
Laban stood and reached for a piece of fruit. “Look, I enjoy a public execution as much as the next man. His associates chuckled with him.But it would be safer for us as a group, in this case, to banish the old fellow. Then we won’t have to be concerned about the subtleties of the law, and we wouldn’t risk public opinion going against us.”
“If you banish, he disappears,” Alma told them. “If you execute, you first need to charge and arrest him. Do you even know where he is? Then you need incontrovertible evidence and a trial. With that you risk drawing unwanted attention, which might make him a martyr, and then the event becomes memorable.”
Breaking the brief silence that followed, Jasher clicked his tongue and shook his head.
“Well, Jasher,” Haman demanded, “speak up if you have something to say.”
“I think safety lies in resolute action,” Jasher stated.
Haman snorted. “It isn’t weakness to take resolute action based on prudence. I agree with Alma. We don’t want to give those religious people a rallying point.”
“I think the rest of the people would thank us for sending this man away,” Reuben said. “All this commotion would die down if he’s not there to keep it going.”
Amulon tucked his thumbs into the tie around his waist and stood in front of Noah. There you have it, sir—banish or execute. What shall we do?
Noah smiled a tight little smile. “What would I ever do without your help to make this very difficult decision?” He looked around. “Banishment?” All the others nodded their agreement. He sighed. It wasn’t what he wanted, but clearly it was the safer course of action. “All right. Banishment it is.”
Amulon patted Noah’s shoulder. “I’ll draw up the papers for you as soon as we return to the city. My pleasure.”
“May I just say,” Jasher added, “that it will be so much better when the council of priests isn’t separated this way. Making these dangerous journeys into the battlefield is a hardship on us all.” Several priests nodded agreement.
Does he think it’s a restful recess for the men on the battle lines? Alma thought.
Laban looked around at the group. “Well, Haman and I can’t leave the battlefield when we’re in charge here. Thanks for making things easier on us.”
“Yes,” Noah agreed. “We all hope the war will be over soon, and you can…”
A commotion outside drew their attention as Gideon burst into the tent with Berechiah and Malachi. “Lamanites!” the chief captain shouted. “They’re attacking!”

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Sweet Success

It's been almost a week now, and I'm still getting used to the idea... I won an important contest at the annual ANWA conference (American Night Writers Association, i.e. LDS women writers who have time to polish their talents typically after the kids have gone to bed) and it changes a lot of things for me as a writer. This book has undergone at least 7,642 revisions because I'm OCD about getting it right, but somebody recognized that it's good writing. One judge even gave me the full 35 points on the evaluation. In the BOB (beginning of book) contest, this won third place.

And by the way, in the other category I entered, historical fiction, I won first place with the beginning of a Book of Mormon novel. I'll post that next week. Both books are the beginnings of trilogies. I've added an author's note that's a sort of book jacket blurb to summarize the stories.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: In Living It Down, Polly Burke has it all—marriage to a successful lawyer, two lively teenage daughters, a beautiful home, the Gospel. Why isn’t she happy? Dejected, confused and joyless, Polly questions her own worth. As depression threatens to overwhelm, she feels the only way to recover herself is to take a self-imposed “time out” and withdraw from everything familiar while she reevaluates her life to make necessary attitude adjustments. Her husband Winston calls it selfish; Polly calls it self-preservation.

Her journey to recovery and greater self knowledge involves renting the basement apartment of Aunt Sophie’s vintage Victorian home, meeting vivacious, creative Lainie McGuire, and helping her 15-year-old daughter through a moral crisis with a predatory boy. Coincidence brings an old flame, Todd Kendall, back into her life. Can the changed man from the past, the man she never wanted to see again, be the key to the future? Polly’s spiritual quest to reconnect with her values, to reclaim her best self through forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation, takes her on a surprising path back to a state of joy. Maybe there's no such thing as a coincidence.

Living It Down (95,000 words) is a character-driven contemporary drama set in Utah Valley. It has elements the LDS reading public can relate to--real people with real problems trying to live the Gospel anyway. Its companion pieces, Living It Up (95,000 words) and See You in the Morning (89,000 words) are also complete.

Living It Down

By Pamela Williams

Tuesday, August 8, 1995
Polly sat cross-legged on the bed thinking she ought to do something about her hair, but the brush was so far away.

Today’s the day to tell Winston. It could be now or tonight, but I can’t delay it another day. She glanced at the window. Even with the blinds closed, she knew it would be another bright summer day in Orem, Utah. All that sunshine out there and all this gloom in here because…

“Polly, are you awake?” Winston’s voice interrupted her thoughts.

“Yes.” Her husband opened the door and peered into the room. His den was small, like a cocoon, dark and airless this morning, and her yellow satin pajamas stuck to her skin. She almost laughed at the irony, feeling like a long-term guest in her own home, sleeping here on the sofa bed these last two months.

“It’s seven thirty and I’m leaving for the office now.” He waited for her response, but when she didn’t speak, he put down his briefcase and stepped inside. “Did you hear me? I said I have a court case today but he’s a no-nonsense judge so I’ll be home by six. We could go out to dinner. There’s a new restaurant…”

She looked at him and took a deep breath. “Winston, I’m leaving.”

He closed the door. “Say that again?”

“I mean I have to get out of here. I am leaving.” Polly pushed her bangs out of her eyes. “I need a time out.”

She watched him absorb the information, process it, then dismiss it as something she couldn’t possibly mean.

He went to the window and opened the blinds. “Time out? You mean like a child?”

Denial. She could have predicted that. “I’m not a child. It’s just that I… I need to go.”

He licked his lips and looked around as if he’d entered another dimension. “What’s a ‘time out’ for grownups? In duration, I mean. What can I expect?”

“I don’t know yet.” She recited her plans as if she were simply informing him of the day’s usual activities. “Aunt Sophie has a basement apartment I can rent for a while.”

His jaw dropped and he squeaked, “You’ll what?”

“No one’s lived there since before Uncle Walter died, so it’s available.”

He stared at her, sudden perception in his eyes. “You’re serious.”

“What part of “leave” don’t you understand?”

He snorted, shifting his feet. “Well, give me a break. It takes a minute for a thing like that to sink in.”

“I know you’re not happy, and you know I’m not either. Something has to change, and that something is me. I’ve looked for shortcuts and alternate routes to get through this and I can’t find any. I have to work it out my own way. Somewhere else.”

He sat on the bed and reached for her hand, but she got up and walked to the window, wishing it were a door. “Polly, have you been reading those women’s magazines again? Because if you have, I’m filing a class action lawsuit today on behalf of all husbands who—”

“Stop it, Winston. This isn’t a joke.”

“Then just tell me what you want. I’ve given you plenty of space to work out this whatever-it-is on your own, but you haven’t done it apparently. How can I help?”

She steadied her breathing. “If I knew that, I wouldn’t feel so lost. Look, it isn’t like changing a flat tire. I’d give anything if you could fix it for me that easily, but there’s no Band-Aid big enough. Something’s wrong with me. I have to repair myself and I don’t know how yet.”

“That doesn’t clear up my confusion.” He stood and came to her.

“It isn’t you.” She stared straight ahead at the knot in his tie, the pulse in his neck. She couldn’t risk losing her resolve if she saw the hurt in his eyes.

“I thought after we talked last night things were better.”

“They’re not. I’m sorry.” She turned toward the window, realizing she should have told him last night that she’d been thinking about this for months. Leaving is so final, and she didn’t really want to do it, but she saw no other way out of this confusion. Seventeen years ago this tall beautiful man had lifted her spirit and made her believe in herself again. Now an awful sense of emptiness had overtaken her, as if she were a loose balloon drifting into the rarified atmosphere, no longer subject to the gravity that had once governed her world.

He let out a long unsteady breath. “Polly, I don’t know what to say. I feel like I’m lost in a foreign country without a map, and I don’t speak the language.”

“I still love you, if you’re worried about that. But love has nothing to do with what I need.”

“You love me?” He turned her around, his hands resting on her shoulders. “You never hold me or kiss me or touch me. You don’t even sleep in our bed. I’ve been patient all these months because I thought that’s what you needed, but I’m pretty empty myself now.”

“I’m sorry.” Her voice dwindled to a whisper. “I don’t like it either, but…”

He held her face and forced her to look at him. “Polly, don’t you know how much I love you?” He kissed her and she responded. It was hard not to. They hadn’t kissed in weeks and she missed him. He nuzzled her face and the scent of his familiar aftershave brought back memories that threatened to unravel her intent. “Look, I have that court thing today, but if I call the office right now I can probably cancel my schedule and we can stay right here in this room until we’ve both made sense of things.”

“That’s a very generous offer.” She touched his thick wavy hair, the rich color of dark honey. When he was in law school, she’d learned how to cut it the way he liked. She stepped away from him and the room seemed to get smaller. “But you must know it wouldn’t change my mind. At the end of the day, I’d still get up and leave.”

“Why?” Now he’d grown impatient. She couldn’t blame him for that.

Exasperated, she threw her hands in the air. “Because I need to get my old self back, and you can’t help me find her. It’s more than depression. It’s an ache in my soul, deep down.” Images from years ago, what seemed like another lifetime, assailed her mind with new doubts and old guilt. Why was it coming back? She’d been so sure it was over.

He hesitated, running a hand through his hair. Denial won. He glanced at his watch and started for the door. “I have to be in court by nine. Why don’t you start your time out by taking the girls to your mother’s for the day and then do something indulgent for yourself—you know, like a pedicure, day spa, shopping. Find something classy to wear tonight when I take you to dinner at this great new Italian restaurant. We can talk then.”

She couldn’t look at him, couldn’t even speak because the pain of his disappointment and her own shortcomings choked her.

He stopped before closing the door. She heard him take a deep breath. “If you want,” he suggested, “we could even go away for a couple of days. Think about it.”

Polly sat on the bed, feeling again like she was floating away and couldn’t grasp anything solid to keep her earthbound. I know I’m speaking these words. Why doesn’t he hear me?

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Time, And Time Again

Marking our 43rd wedding anniversary a few weeks ago, and then having a landmark birthday has left me mellow and reflective about the passage of time. Then today, in my never-ending effort to organize my office (which I would rather do anything than), I opened an old journal and found this from 1998:

What Happened Along the Way

I used to want to change the
   world with grand brush
   strokes of brilliance,
   subtly accented with

Then life happened...
Sign papers.
Admire the ring.
Board an airplane.
Get used to us.
Buy a crib.
Check a sunset.
Write a check.
Buy little shoes.
Find two tiny teeth marks on the arm
   of the rocking chair.
Check the real estate listings.
Find a school.
Put a lost tooth under a pillow.
Get film for the camera.
Hire a babysitter.
Buy a bicycle.
Find a music teacher.
Apply for a library card.
Sign up for soccer.
Go to a dance recital.
Plan a vacation.
Answer the telephone.
Make a costume.
Dry tears.
Try to remember history, chemistry, French verbs.
Get ready for Christmas.
Leave the porch light on.
   Wait up.
Visit college campuses.
Accept collect calls.
Admire the ring.
Did someone say Grandma?
Where did I put my Dr. Seuss collection?

I used to want to change the world with
   Who I Am
   and What I can Do For It,
my possibilities all at the ready.

   Then life happened and
I got busy.

   Now I am content to think
it will be enough if someone
misses me when I am gone.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Good Morning, 2013


A small gray wren,
plump from early spring feasting,
perched on the trunk
of a gnarled old willow still in its
winter skeleton, and chirped her
contentment with the world.
Except for her song I might not
have noticed her there,
so plain and easily overlooked.
She stopped for a moment and
jumped higher, to the stump of a
limb pruned away last year,
before beginning another chorus.
Silhouetted against the cloudless
morning sky, she sang her song of
thanks for a day such as this.
She has only one song, and it doesn’t
matter who is listening. She has
perfected it because she sings it
every day.

Except for my song, you might not
notice me, here among the
monotony of sagebrush, perched in
an ordinary white house with plain
gray trim. Many songs coming alive
in my soul, imperfect little chirps at
first, awaken it to all the
Stronger as the unnumbered days
go on, my songs arise and are born
a part of me, and yet apart from me.
On a day such as this, what can I do
but sing from every branch
in all the trees I can find?

(Pamela Williams, 2002)