In celebration of the end of National Novel Writing Month, we're having an open mike on Saturday, December 1st, from 1:30 to 3:30 (the afternoon time, not the really early morning time) at the Burren in Davis Square in Somerville, MA. If you're in the Boston area or can make it down, we'd love to see you there. And if you'd like to step up to the mike and read something—an excerpt from your recently, frantically completed novel or maybe just a short story you've been working on—let us know by Thursday, November 29th. Just email firstname.lastname@example.org. Hope to see y'all there. All of you. The entire Internet.
Life is full of a bunch of thank-you notes back and forth. Someone takes you out to dinner so you secretly pilfer books from the publicity room at work and send them through office mail with a note attached: Thank you for the dinner. It was so lovely to finally meet you. And then a week later on the welcome mat of your house there is a pretty little letter from the people you had the lovely dinner with thanking you for the books. Where does it end. If you are raised like my mother who wears lipstick at all times, including at the gym and on hikes, never.
My mother. Where can I begin. She is one crazy lady. I don’t even want to write about her, because knowing me, I’ll make her into this big heroine and then no one will ever be on my side again. Or, I’ll write about her in a disparaging way and be cut off forever, financially. Or the very fact that I am writing about her will change the winds of fate and she will die, horribly or not, it doesn’t really matter, and I will be the orphan I always feared I would become. So I have decided I will not write about my mother until I am forty. Or until financially independent, which could be never. Also, I am writing this from the attic where I have been imprisoned. Without food or water, and certainly nothing organic. Ooooh that’s gonna make her mad.
My mother—I have decided to write about her tangentially after all—comes from a Mormon family. Yikes, says everybody. But these Mormons were Swedish first and foremost, and most of them ended up seriously addicted to drugs anyway so it’s not so bad. It’s not as uncool as it sounds. They lived in Salt Lake City, following the gospel of some young American missionary who had gone to Sweden with the notion that the people there would believe what he said. The act of being a missionary reminds me of something that happened on the subway the other day. A woman was singing at the top of her lungs something about seeing Jesus and having him come and save her. She had an unfortunate speech impediment which normally would not have mattered to anyone but because she was literally shouting this song at the top of her lungs, it had become nearly unlistenable, and people were getting very mad. Two young high school students were making rude and inappropriate side comments while this woman performed her terrifically disgraceful song and dance, and I caught eyes with a man seated at the far end of the train, who was just as pleasantly bewildered as I, and he raised his eyebrows in a kind of hear-hear toast. When the woman got off at 59 th street, one of the pimply boys yelled out to the train and the people beyond the closing doors: I would say you convinced about zero percent of the people on this train that Jesus exists. That’s pretty much what I imagine happened when the Mormon missionaries went to Sweden, only they probably couldn’t understand what the high school boys had said.
Rags, the namesake of this story, happened to be my grandmother’s favorite dog. He had not come over from Sweden, in fact, I have no idea where he came from. Is it enough to say he made what would have been an unhappy family mildly amused? I’m not even quite sure what kind of dog he was, to be honest, but does it really matter? You’ll imagine the kind of dog you probably had as a kid and superimpose that image onto anything I would describe here, so what’s the point? He was a golden retriever, is that okay? No he wasn’t. He was a German Shepherd. That is true. Rags was a German Shepherd, and he was not Swedish, and he was bought at a pet store in Salt Lake City. Every day my grandmother would come home and play with Rags, and pet Rags, and feed Rags treats she wasn’t supposed to, and hold his ears and poke his eyes sweetly and snuggle up next to him on her bed and read novels and novels and novels and drink tea out of cups they would soon find out had lead in them. Rags was there when my grandmother’s sister, Meredith Katherine, died of pneumonia at age eleven and who my mother was named after which only further worries me that my hands are writing the thing that will shift the winds of fate and kill my own mother but what can I do, I have been inspired and things are pouring out of me. But Rags was a good, good dog.
One day, Uncle Lon—which is what my mother called him when she told me this story—came home from work at the mill, or the diner, or the post office, or the mine, as all Uncles did back then in Salt Lake City or any other city or town back when people’s grandparents were alive, and poured himself a cup of coffee and drank it right out of a cup made with lead. Rags begged for some, but why he wanted coffee, Uncle Lon did not know. So Uncle Lon gave Rags some coffee, right out of the cup, and the strangest things began to happen in their house from then on.
One morning, Meredith Katherine died of pneumonia.
On another occasion, Uncle Lon beat the shit out of his wife.
Then, his wife called the cops and Uncle Lon went to prison.
When he came back from prison, he beat her again, and again.
Dinner was not served for three nights in a row, because Uncle Lon was at the bar, and my great grandmother was in the hospital.
And then, without warning, Rags died. My grandmother found him behind the pantry, curled up. He was very old at that time so it wasn’t so out of the blue, but it felt that way, according to family sources. And my grandmother was extremely sad. She came home from school the next day and lay in her bed without speaking or blinking for a long time. She never felt the same again. She moved, in fact, to California, away from her mother, away from Uncle Lon. Which is where she became a hat model, met my grandfather who worked in the airlines and was an alcoholic and spent many nights on the street, it would turn out. People have said my grandmother was the most beautiful woman they had ever seen, and dumb as a rock. But she did make it into the local paper a few times: Lovely Society Couple at Pan Am Fundraiser. She died before I was born, but everyone says I look like her.
The other day I was waiting outside a market on Spring Street and a young man in a cheap suit came up to me as I was shaking out my umbrella. Are you eighteen? He asked me. Yeah, why. I told him. Are you looking to make some money? He asked. NO. I said. Do you know anyone who’s looking to make some money? I thought about my grandmother, Uncle Lon, Meredith Katherine, and my own sweet, dear mother, the financial situation I was in, and then I thought about Rags. NO! I said. It felt good to say it. It felt really, really good to say that word.