Sunday, November 9, 2014

Dead People

Dias de los Muertos skull with ravens

I and some writer friends celebrate los Dias de los Muertos -- the Days of the Dead--with our own tradition:  every year in early November we hold a free public reading of stories and poems about death and dying, grieving or haunting,  Some are eerie, some humorous, some solemn.  My poet husband always reads Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven, and author/musician Axel Mundi reads The Cremation of Sam McGee.  

This year I wrote a creepy story especially for the event.  It's called After the Funeral for want of a more interesting title.  Allow me to make the following disclaimer:  the narrator (of unknown gender) is not myself, and the narrator's mother is not my late mother.

After the Funeral

After the Funeral

by Alison Jean Ash

     After the funeral service, everyone came up to console me.  The women enfolded me in scented hugs, cooing like so many mourning doves, “deepest sympathy” and “so sorry for your loss” and “She’s in a better place now.”  The men patted my shoulder and, as if to speak aloud of grief was faintly obscene, muttered inarticulate regrets. 
     A warm cloud of mourners surrounded me as we made our way to my mother’s house, where kindly neighbors had set forth a buffet, including strong drink.  I allowed myself to be fed—“You must eat something”—and plied with whiskey—“It will help you buck up, dear”—and eventually I allowed myself to smile a little, faintly, tremulously.
     In the weeks afterwards, I had the eager assistance of several of Mother’s old friends in sorting out all her clothes.  The old dears spoke understandingly, in hushed tones, of the need for me to move on with my life.  I donated the clothing, with various other personal belongings such as her many ashtrays, to a charity thrift store. 
     Later, alone, I took down her framed reproductions of famous paintings and replaced them with works more to my taste.  I repainted her bedroom—the best in the house, of course—and hired strangers to help me move her furniture out and mine in.  Her fine oak dressers I kept; her bed, despite its magnificence, I donated to charity.
     The kitchen, too, I repainted, and I sorted out her favorite dishes to give away, along with her recipe books and her paperback romance novels.  No one would want to buy them, stained with food and smelling of stale cigarette smoke as they were, but I understand that the charity stores bundle up their unsalable books and send to be pulped for paper.  
     The old house was mine now, and gradually, cautiously, I made it mine.  There were few witnesses to its new lightness of atmosphere, as her friends, once assured that I was functioning on my own—at the age of fifty!—had gradually ceased to visit me with their offers of help and their casseroles.  It was a relief to me to be alone at last, with no need to feign grief or moderate my smiles.  Myself, I had no friends.
     Alone in my house, I smiled, I sang, I laughed aloud as I scrubbed and painted and hung fresh curtains.  Some days it took all the self-discipline I could summon not to shout my joy from the housetops.  But caution was necessary.
     You see, I killed her.
     Oh, she was a wicked woman!  Evil, and treacherous, and so very sly.  For fifty years, that woman, whom everyone had thought so sweet, had made my life a torment.
     Never mind how I killed her.  It would have been easy enough to discover—if anyone had been looking for it.   But no one was.
     So I was free now, and I was safe.  But eventually all the labor of claiming the house for my own was finished; I could find no more tasks to occupy my hands or, more importantly, my mind.  Apart from putting in time at my secure, undemanding and utterly boring job, I was now fully at leisure.           All alone in my clean and delightful house, I discovered, to my infinite surprise, that I was lonely.
All those years, while we inflicted our endless subtle cruelties on each other, she kept the friends of her youth, taking a sardonic pleasure in how skillfully she hid from them her true nature.   But I made no friends myself; it always seemed too much trouble.  Those who praised our mutual devotion, truly, were not so very far wrong.  Bound together as we were in our private hell, she and I, we needed no one else.
     Now I am alone.  I have acquaintances, of course; I have my co-workers and my friends from church.  People invite me to dinner now and then, and to their Christmas parties.  But there is no one left who knows me, no one alive who knows how wicked I am.  It had never occurred to me how bereft in that regard her death would leave me.
     When I realized my loneliness, I began to castigate myself for removing every trace of her existence from the house.  If I only had kept the leavings of her physical being, I thought, her spirit too might have remained to haunt me, to comfort me with familiar torments.  But I have no way of knowing whether that’s true.
     After giving this problem much thought, I have decided to hold a séance.  I will retrieve the framed photo of her from the downstairs closet where I hid it—not having the nerve to give it away or destroy it—and I will light candles beside it.  I will make a little altar, in fact, as Mexican people do for their departed family members, and place all her favorite things on it, to entice her spirit back into the house. 
     Yes, I’ll do it.  I’ll bake some of those horrid scones she always made, reeking of too much baking soda.  I will buy a pack of her brand of cigarettes, and I’ll go to the thrift store and buy an ashtray to burn them in.  Ironically, I’m sure it will be one of hers, since there aren't as many around nowadays as there used to be.  While I’m at it, I should pick up some sleazy romances, the kind that look as though they have a lot of sexual violence in them—her favorite kind.  She was beginning to get hooked on the new types that are popular now, featuring zombies or succubi.  The undead have much more scope for perversity, I gather, than the living, and my mother did love her perversity.  Is it any wonder I chose to keep my body to myself?
     Never mind that.  Yes, as I say, I will set up this altar, and when it’s ready I will light the candles—and the cigarettes—and I will drink some brandy from her bottle on the altar, and then I will say aloud the words I had never thought to speak.
     “Mother, I miss you.  Come back.”

Monday, October 6, 2014

Hello Dear World

The first thing about me is that I write.

That's why I identify with spiders.  Arachne - Spider - is Nature's great spinner and weaver, bringing her webs into being out of her center.

In many Native American stories, Spider Woman is the creator goddess, spinning all the webs of life and kinship, time and magic, out of apparent nothingness.

Myself, I am a spinner of words, and what I bring forth from my center is stories.

The second thing about me, just now, is that some of my writing is being published.  That means (in these times) that I must have a blog.

So here we are:  I'm blogging.

Why I write about a small town

One day last summer when I was downtown in the city I now call home, I met one of the forwards from the local minor league soccer team, and congratulated him on his last goal.  I recognized the mayor—on foot, as she often is.  I waved to two acquaintances from the Farmers Market, and I paused to chat with the editor of the daily newspaper, who lives next door to a friend of mine.

That was unusual; I don’t often run into quite so many people I know except at soccer matches.  Still, a woman I met as a grocery cashier is now a Facebook friend and known to me as an artist, and my favorite librarian came to the Post-Season Picnic we fans threw for the soccer team.  With 40,000 residents, Bremerton’s a small city.  My fictional Oakville is even smaller, only half as big.

Most of my life until the last seven years has been spent in larger cities.  I was shy when I was young, and always had my “nose in a book” as my mother used to say, so I didn’t try to know my neighbors—and indeed, we moved too often for that to be easy. Whenever I went out in those cities, I pretty much imagined I was invisible.  In my twenties and thirties, I was “artistic” and often dressed outrageously—and yet I still thought of myself as invisible.  Later I heard the same thing from professional actors:  when you’re on, people don’t see you:  they see the costume, the character, not the person inside.

In a small town, no one is invisible. 

When Liz Archer (in You’re So Vain) walks with Trent Callahan in downtown Oakville, Lucy Grant is bound to see them—or if she doesn’t, someone will be kind enough to tell her about it.  In a small town, gossip (as I like to say of Oakville) is a force of nature.

In a small town, even in these nomadic times, people are still more likely to know their neighbors.  I’ve gotten to know some of mine without even trying.

Although I’ve lived for forty-four years in Western Washington, my Oakville is not out here but in the Midwest.  There are several reasons for that.  

One is that an extremely popular local author, Debbie Macomber, has immortalized a  small town in Kitsap County already.  Not only do I not want it to look like I’m copying her, I don’t want to copy her.  So my small town is elsewhere.

For several formative years I lived in the Midwest, and my romantical adolescent soul adored its preposterously grandiose Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century architecture. I longed for the day when I could escape to Europe, but in the meantime I found rich food for daydreams in the churches’ soaring (if smoke-stained) stone spires; the college campus with its pillared and porticoed Classical halls and neo-Gothic dormitories; the ornate county courthouse behind its wrought-iron fence.  So when I began to envision Oakville, memories of Indiana and especially of Ohio with its strong Italian influence, came to mind. 

Every day I write—that is, almost every day, in spite of all my procaffinating—I meet more of Oakville’s residents and fill in more of Oakville’s geography, just as I would in a bricks and mortar town.  In You’re So Vain, I discovered Harmony Coffee and Manzano’s Italian Restaurant with its famous—or infamous—secluded booth. 
Past meets present, yoga meets Christmas,
40-yr-old bachelor Sid meets orange-haired
Melody with her lived-in face--and a
very large puppy steals the show.

In Comfort and Joy (a Christmas story, out soon), I've revisited Harmony Coffee and introduced a bookstore, a natural food store, and the downtown library—which will play an important role in the Valentine story I’m working on now, Heart of Stone.

So far I’m hearing from my readers, both those who have purchased You’re So Vain, and my critique partners and advance readers of Comfort and Joy, that they like Oakville. One of them says, "Tell me where Oakville is, and I'll pack up and move there!" 

I hope you enjoy your visits to Oakville too.

P. S. Procaffination, in case you’re wondering, is the act of procrastinating while drinking coffee.