The Night Watch

August was relentless, night provided little relief. Peter tossed off his sheets and stared at the ceiling, a blank canvas for memories. When the morning light finally filtered through the blinds and the insects announced the fourth day of a heat wave, he turned away from the window and thought of the people who had lived in his house. They came and went in such a haphazard pattern that Peter had forgotten most of their names. Only one seemed to endure.

Mr. Hayakawa, the painter who rented the parlor floor was Peter’s original tenant. He wanted the high ceilings and a certain kind of light from the back windows. The message on the bulletin board of the ‘High and Dry’ Laundry read: Artist seeking parlor floor rental. North light wanted. Very clean, very quiet will pay rent in advance.

Paying in advance was all Peter needed to know; money was short in those days—his job at the post office didn’t cover the heating bill and taxes on the house. His sister had gotten married and moved out of the second floor flat with her husband to some place in Ohio. Peter had lost track of her there. A young couple took that apartment and now they had grown to a family of four, squeezing into the small two-bedroom space.

The third floor had cycled through a cast of singles. When the sound of roof top parties shifted to baby showers, Peter knew it was only a matter a time before a new fresh-faced tenant would appear.

He gave his thin frame a push up by holding onto the night table. In the bathroom he looked in the medicine cabinet mirror and shook his head at where the muscles use to be. Peter had been in the infantry during the Battle of the Bulge; he was seventeen then. “Don’t start down that path.” A cold shower focused him on what he needed to do first.

“You’ve reached the Department of Veterans Affairs,” the automated recording began. “Please type your VA number and press the pound button when complete.” Peter put on his glasses and held the phone in front of him. “For information regarding health insurance, press one. For information regarding benefits press two…”

“Damn it,” Peter said into phone as he waited for the recording to reach the final choice, which was to speak to a live representative.

“That check, Mr. Daniels, will be processed in the next two weeks and automatically deposited into the account that you’ve designated.” 

“That’s good, because I‘ve been waiting a month for it,” he said. Peter tried not to be offended by the chirpy girl on the end of the line. “Where are you?” he asked.

“What do you mean?” she said.

 “Well, I was just curious if it was as hot where you are as it’s here. Maybe that’s why it’s taking so long to process that check. You’re not in Bombay, are you?”

“No, Mr. Daniels. Americans working in the United States staff the VA. I’m in Oklahoma City. Can I be of any further assistance, sir?”

“No, dear, that’s all for today.”

“Well, we are always here for you and we do appreciate your service to the country.”

There was a pause on the other end of the phone.

“Thank you.” Peter pressed the end button. “Bet she doesn’t even know where Belgium is. That was one cold winter.”

Peter looked up when he heard the front door close. “Is that you,John?”

His son came every morning on his way to work. He sometimes had breakfast, but most of the time he was in a rush to get to his job in downtown Brooklyn where he did other people’s taxes. The two men had a pattern: first John would check if his father had taken all of his medicines the day before, next he would look over the apartment to see if everything was in order, and finally he would review the list that was on the refrigerator door.

John was a list maker, and while Peter was annoyed by having to check things off every day, it did save conversation about what he ate and the number of glasses of water he drank.

“I see you didn’t take a walk yesterday.” John stood facing the refrigerator door.

“I went up and down the stairs four times. I think that counts. Here, let me check it off.” He turned to face his balding sixty-year-old son. “Did you take a walk?”

“It’s not about me, Dad,” John said.

“Mrs. Allen called me yesterday about her toilet. I went upstairs and she didn’t even have a plunger, so I came down here to get mine. I’ll be damned if I’m going to call a plumber because her kids keep trying to flush toys,” Peter said.

“Maybe it’s time for you to consider retiring as the super of this building. You could fit everything you have here into a small apartment. Remember the pictures I showed you last week of that apartment in Flatbush? It’s in a better neighborhood, too.”

“This is where I was born, and this is where I’m going to be carried out the front door.  I’ve lived on every floor of this house. I know every board and every crack.”

Peter looked across his apartment. Beyond the living area were French doors that opened onto a small garden with a flagstone terrace. “Where could I get an apartment with such a beautiful garden? Rose bushes that my grandmother planted.”

“Well, there’s a park in Flatbush and…”

“Thanks, John, but no thanks. This was your playroom, and we had a swing on that tree in the corner of the yard. Remember?”

There was a loud crash and both men looked up at the ceiling.

“Just Mr. H, he’s working on another masterpiece. I was in his apartment yesterday; we had a long chat about art. His new paintings are very dark: black, brown and blue.”

“Is that what you talk about?”

 “No, sometimes we talk about the weather and sometimes we talk about the war. He makes a real good cup of tea.”

“The war?” Peter opened his thermos and took a sip of coffee.

“It took me a while to bring up the subject. It’s uncomfortable for both of us. We have our prejudices.” Peter laughed.

“What’s so funny?” John asked.

“You know he’s been my tenant for almost thirty years, and I wasted ten of them barely speaking to him.”

John shook his head. “So, what’s your plan for today?” 

“Well, first I’m going to hose down the front sidewalk, then I’ll water the plants out back. They need special food and some conversation. I thought I’d take my walk today over to the clinic and get my vitals taken. I know how much you like to keep track of my blood pressure. Gotta stop by Sweet Hearts though; you can’t win if you don’t play—right?”

“That’s true. I heard the lottery is now—what, twenty million?” John looked at his watch and picked up his briefcase. “I’ve got to run, I’m glad you’re going to have a busy day.”

Peter followed his son outside. “I really should take the pay-out as one lump sum…don’t you think?” He pulled the hose around the iron-gate next to the stoop.

“Sounds sensible to me. See you tomorrow.” John waved as he walked away.

Peter’s wife, Bea, had always kept red geraniums in pots around the entryway. Now that she was gone, the small, gated area held some ivy and four large black plastic garbage cans that were chained to the fence six days a week. As he bent over to connect the hose to the faucet, Peter felt a dizzy spell coming on, so he sat on the wooden bench next to the garbage cans. The small space outside the garden apartment’s door was still in the morning shade and he could hear but not see the traffic on the street.

Hart Street had changed. Brooklyn had changed, some for the good, and some for the bad. “I sound like an old man. My father was sure to have said that when the Greek family moved into number forty-five, and I bet his father said the same thing when they plowed over the last cornfield on DeKalb Avenue.” He pushed himself up, connected the hose, and started to water down the sidewalk.  The fragrance of the wet cement increased as the water splayed across the uneven squares.

 “You’re up early.” Peter watched as his neighbor’s granddaughter locked the front door and pause midway down the steps. He tried to continue the conversation, but she ignored him and looked at her phone.

“Everyone has someplace to go. If you’re not a celebrity, well, you might as well be invisible.” Bea had told him he looked like Dick Powell.

                                                                         *

Mrs. Kadam was in the store when Peter walked in. She was sitting behind the counter reading a fashion magazine. Peter watched her fold the corner of one of the pages and lick her thumb so that the next page would turn more easily.

“Good morning, Mrs. Kadam, how are you today?”

“Oh, Mr. Daniels, you surprised me. I’m well. And yourself?” She examined his shirt and avoided his eyes.

“Well enough.” Peter smiled and looked around the store for a few things to buy. He would never come in just for the lottery ticket. The purchase of a ticket was intended to look like a causal after thought. Walking to the back of the store, he raised his voice. “Do you have any plant food?”

“It’s in the last aisle, next to the dog biscuits,” she said.

“It’s a wonder how well you’re stocked for any and every possible need.” Peter returned to the counter and had the plant food in one hand and a can of soup in the other. “Here, this will do it for today.” He frowned as he looked above her head at the rows of cigarette cartons.  “It’s amazing that people still smoke.” Peter stood staring at the boxes, thinking of Bea rolling her oxygen tank from room to room.

 “Can I interest you in anything else, Mr. Daniels? Perhaps a Pick Ten, or a Mega Million, today.”

 “How much is it today, Mrs. Kadam? The Mega Millions, that is, the big one.”

He had heard a radio announcement confirm what John had said: it was going to be twenty million by the end of the day.

“Over twenty-million,” she smiled pointing to the sign in the window.

 “I’ll take one. Maybe you’ll give me luck.”

 “Are you still going to give all the money away?”

 “I may buy myself something. And you, Mrs. Kadam, after you buy all the shoes you want, what then?”

 “Oh, I never play, Mr. Daniels. Mr. Kadam doesn’t believe in it.”

 “The Lottery?”

“Oh, yes, the Lottery. He said it’s a conspiracy of the government, sir, yes. The government is keeping poor people down by selling them lottery tickets and cigarettes.”

“Look at the time. I must excuse myself. I have an appointment.” Peter cleared his throat and took his package. 

 He had started to walk down DeKalb Avenue when he heard Mrs. Kadam calling his name.

“You left your ticket on the counter, Mr. Daniels.” She was waving it above her head as her orange sari billowed behind her.

“A gift, Mrs. Kadam.”

She protested and tried to push the small rectangular ticket toward him.

“Surely your husband will allow a present from an old customer?”

She looked over her shoulder in the direction of the store. “We will worry about this tomorrow then—when we win.” 

“Of course, tomorrow,” Peter said.

When Peter returned home, he glanced up at the bay window of the first floor and saw Mr. Hayakawa staring back at him. He could see that his tenant’s hands were covered in blue paint, and there were streaks of black across the front of his painter’s smock. Mr. Hayakawa tapped on the glass, smiled, and motioned for Peter to come upstairs.

The massive set of front doors still had the original etched glass panels. A second set, across the worn tiled foyer, had several locks. On the floor of the small entry was a musty old umbrella and unwanted restaurant flyers. Peter folded the junk mail into his back pocket and unlocked the door to the hall.

“I saw you leave earlier and thought I would give you a look at how the painting is progressing.” Mr. Hayakawa was standing in his open doorway in the dark hallway.

“Did you come up with a title for it yet?” Peter asked as he walked into the front parlor.

Even though Peter visited with his tenant often, he was always surprised: the twelve- foot ceilings and walls were painted white, the room was pristine and uncluttered. The floors were covered with sisal carpets, and a beige sofa with cushions around a low table completed the furnishing. Peter removed his shoes.

“My grandmother had this room painted red, deep red and my mother tried to paint over it. Yellow, as I recall. You could barely move around all the furniture then. The room over the years turned from orange to yellow. And now…” Peter paused. “Finally, white.”

“So, you’ve told me, Mr. Daniels.”

“How many coats of paint did it take you to get to white?” Peter asked.

“Four coats, the first year. Of course, I’ve repainted several times.” He pointed toward the sliding pocket doors that were shut. “I’d like to tell you about my painting before I show it to you. If that’s all right?”

 “The world is filled with obvious things. I applaud your mystery,” Peter said

“I’ll make us some tea first.” He gestured to the seating area in the bay window that overlooked the street. “Please sit down. I’ll be right back.”

A few moments later Mr. Hayakawa returned with a black lacquer tray holding a kettle, and two small gray tea bowls. “I’ll pour,” Mr. Hayakawa said.  He stirred the liquid with a small bamboo whisk, surveying the leaves, as they melted in the hot liquid. The scent bloomed from the small containers.

Peter observed his tea bubble in the ceramic cup. He could almost taste the hot bitter liquid.

“First, my title: The Night Watch.”

“Is it permissible to use a title that’s already been taken?” Peter asked.

Mr. Hayakawa smiled and nodded. “It’s a tribute to a painting that was severely criticized in its own time. A painting that had flouted the classical rules of art.

 “I’m afraid I need a Rembrandt refresher,” Peter said.

 “Well, if this was indeed an image of a night watch, then, as you know, Mr. Daniels, the rules of muster or as we might say mobilizationwouldn’t be so chaotic. Those men almost look like street performers, not soldiers. Here’s a print of the painting.” Mr. Hayakawa handed Peter a photograph.

 “It’s so dark,” Peter held the photo closer.

“Yes, that’s also one of its attributes or failings…or perhaps the aging of a canvas with layers of varnish. Rembrandt’s critics wanted more light in the painting.”

 “The little girl in the yellow dress seems out of place.” Peter stared at the print in his hand.

 “Symbolism. Possibly victory or resurrection. What do you think?”

 “I’m not sure, but I’m ready to see your Night Watch.”

Mr. Hayakawa went to the pocket doors, pushing one open with his left hand and the other with his right. In the corner of the studio was a very large canvas; it reached halfway to the ceiling and almost completely across one of the walls. Peter walked up to it and looked at its surface. He carefully stepped backwards.

The canvas was black with three large rectangular shapes. Each of the shapes was dark blue, so close to the black that the edges of the color fields almost disappeared. Within each of the blue forms Peter could see an under-painting, almost erased by the blue, a fleck of a yellow line in one and speck of red in another.

“Well?” said Mr. Hayakawa.

“I’m lost in it. A memory of the sea at night: black, but with a depth of blue, possibly moonlight flickering through waves, possibly a stain of blood from battle.”

 “I knew you would see more than just the surface,” said Mr. Hayakawa.

 “But you weren’t in the war. Why this subject?”

 “There are many kinds of battles. I’ve felt the anguish of war in my own way.”

Peter had learned years ago about the internment camp that Mr. Hayakawa’s family entered in 1942. He first heard of the camps when he returned home from the war, and even then, it was something Peter wasn’t willing to come to terms with—not until Mr. Hayakawa showed him his book of Dorothea Lange photographs. 

“You see, Mr. Daniels, Rembrandt’s Night Watch is an enormous painting, much larger than this.” He gestured toward the black and blue canvas in front of them. One needs to stand back from his painting, and it see it from a distance.”

“A distance of time, too, perhaps,” Peter said.

“Yes, wars from a distance melt into one another—don’t you think? We see history as a never-ending cycle. My Night Watch is meant to be seen up close.” The painter smiled. “Our night sky is the same.”

Peter must have look confused.

“It envelops us,” Mr. Hayakawa continued. “It closes in. We sense the enormity of the universe. It pushes on us from a great distance and makes us feel its presence and our smallness.”

“Your night sky from the desert of California was the same as my night sky over Saint Vith in Belgium,” Peter said.

 Mr. Hayakawa nodded. “Time and space bring us closer together.” He moved near the canvas, pointing to the red stain and then the yellow line. “We have left our marks on this world.”

End

This story was a finalist for the Adelaide Literary Award Anthology 2020, Short Stories. ADELAIDE BOOKS

The story is dedicated to the memory of Alfred Moskowitz who served during the Battle of the Bulge.

Warning

Jen stubbed her cigarette out on the window ledge. The room behind her was quiet, her stepsisters still sleeping, lay twisted in the cotton sheet that barely covered them: Lucy faced north and Mary south, positions they had negotiated when they were six.

Hart Street was dark; there was only a hint of the morning sky. Jen looked over at her pack of Marlboro Lights. People should have warning labels: Dangerous to your health, Not fit for family gatherings, Unable to keep promises. She held the pack and counted the number of cigarettes left. If she didn’t have one now, the five would get her through the afternoon. The argument last night with her mother had kept her awake; if only her mother knew what she had to do today.

“You need to get away from him, you’re better than he is, don’t you know that?”

Jen’s mother, Maureen, was washing dishes while Jen slowly dried them. Mary and Lucy did their homework at the small table. The kitchen became too crowded when Jen’s brother walked in and opened the refrigerator door.

“You just ate, Billy,” Maureen said. She turned away from her daughter who was drying a glass and faced her son. “Look at you, you’ve grown two inches in the last month. I can’t keep enough food on the table.”

“Sorry, Mom, just wanted something sweet. Do we have any ice cream? It’s so hot tonight.”

“Not in the budget this week.” She looked over at Jen and shook her head.

“Don’t worry Mom, I won’t get fired. I told them I was sick, had the flu, and needed to be out for two days so I wouldn’t infect anyone.” She touched the bruise around her eye.

“Well, I hope they believed you, because you know….”

“I know, Mom. I know you need to cover the bills.”

When Jen’s stepfather walked into the kitchen, she turned so he wouldn’t see her face. If he had seen the black eye, he would have gone looking for Lewis, and he would have taken Billy with him. That’s what Maureen had told her.

“Having a family meeting without me?” He leaned over the table and looked at what the twins were working on. “You girls must be really smart to be able to answer all those questions with this noise.” He smiled at his wife. “I guess you two have learned to block it out?”

“I don’t think so, they keep one ear on our conversation,” Maureen said.

Lucy looked up at her father. “They call it multi-tasking, Daddy.”

“See, honey, I never heard of that, and yet, Lucy and Mary are doing it in front of me,” he laughed. “I’m going back to the game, come on, Billy. Let’s leave the ladies alone in the kitchen.” He motioned to the boy, who moved around the two girls at the table.

Maureen looked at the closed kitchen door. “He had a good day today, Jen. I’m glad he didn’t see your eye.”

Continue reading “Warning”

Moving Day

Lizzie Bower waited on the second floor landing while the next load of furniture was hauled up the stairs. Decisions needed to be made: the contents of her mother’s apartment had arrived on Ellis Street.

“Oh, oh…so who is sending you these things? They are all so—so beautiful!” her landlady shouted up the staircase.

Lizzie didn’t need to see her face, she could imagine Mrs. Thorn’s mouth open as each item marched up the stairs: a five foot gilded lamp from a South Hampton estate sale, a small Chinoiserie desk, an iron Napoleon camp chair with brass arm rests and a leather seat. It was a seemingly endless parade of exotic furniture and boxes whose contents could only be imagined.

“Belated wedding gifts from my Mom,” Lizzie shouted back.

Turning toward the growing piles, Lizzie showed the movers where to place the excess of her mother’s life. The men positioned the alien furniture next to the Goodwill discards that decorated the apartment; they demolished any semblance of balance the room once held.

“Jeeze, whoever packed this … supposed to use the fourteen by fourteens for books, Miss, the little ones, yah know, the ones that say: BOOKS.” The mover gave Lizzie a look as he heaved himself through the door.

“Sorry, my mother…”

Lizzie raised her eyes toward the ceiling; she couldn’t expect him to be interested in the details of her mother’s move to London. It was difficult enough for her to explain her own life, but now she had to come up with a rationale for these castoff pieces of furniture. Slicing open one of the boxes with a knife, she found dirty ashtrays and cigarette butts.

Continue reading “Moving Day”

Johnny Heart’s Tattoo

Maude had to wait for ten minutes so Johnny Heart could live forever on her arm.

Johnny had tattoos, he had plenty of them, but then he could: he was with the circus. It was almost required to have them there. Everyone she met at Morris Brother’s Circus had them, even women. Maude started to think about the ones on Johnny’s chest. She remembered the night when she counted twenty, each was in the shape of a heart with ribbons threading through them. Inside the wavy bands a name or a word was written. Her favorite was the rose bud that looked as if it was about to open. Curling from below his right elbow over his left shoulder, a snake twisted, green scaled with a red split tongue extending its length with a small v behind Johnny’s neck. Maude had never seen such a handsome man; his salty smell reminded her of the ocean.

“Okay, girly, it’s been ten minutes. Have you decided?”

“Yes, I’m ready. I’ve been thinking about this for a while. Since my friend is here, I’m going to do it now.”

The man stepped back and looked at Jewel, making her feel uncomfortable.

“Do I know you, girly?”

“No, I just have one of those familiar faces.”

“Humph, look at theses stencils. Here are the letters and size I suggest, but if you want to look around and pick out your own be my guest. As you’re coming in here and I’m the expert, these here are what I’d call lady sizes and what I’d recommend. Take em or pick your own.”

Looking around the shop, Maude viewed the stencils hanging all over the walls, pictures of animals, women and almost anything a customer could imagine. Stacked carelessly on a shelf, stained with black circles and drips, pots of colored inks waited. Two swiveling chairs and one lone table, where more complicated work was done, filled the floor space. Maude thumbed through the tablet, agreeing to go with what was offered.

Continue reading “Johnny Heart’s Tattoo”

Frances Liked Oranges

Combing Frances’ hair, Mrs. Buhle turned her around and tried to smile with lips too thin for the gesture. Her black eyes squinted. The skin on her forehead was marked with lines and two oval brown splotches. Mrs. Buhle was very old, but then everyone appeared very old to Frances, who was five. The woman’s shoulders were rounded, padded with a thick black sweater, fluffed like feathers. Frances tried not to move. She was sure she was going to be eaten, or at least pierced by some hidden instrument.
“Now Frances, your mother is coming to visit you today. She wants to see a happy girl. You’re a happy girl.”
This was not a question.
“I’ll take you downstairs, you can go into the front room today. Don’t look so scared. When your mother leaves, I will have a little present for you. How about that…Frances?”
Frances turned her face up toward Mrs. Buhle. Maybe she would get an orange, she liked oranges. She closed her eyes and waited for the blow that didn’t come.

“Frances, Frances, where are you? Are you hiding…sweetie?”
She was trying to hide from her mother, Maude, but her small foot stuck out from behind the large rose-colored wing chair.
“I think I can see you, I see you.” Her mother began a singsong voice.
“Come out, come out, where-ever-you-are. I have a present for you, come out, come out.”
Peering from around the chair with one eye, Frances saw her mother holding a big box with a yellow ribbon.
“Come on, come on…. I’ll help you open this big box. Is it too big for such a little girl to open? Let’s just see what could be in here. You can do it along with me, sweetie.”
Frances crossed the room, smiled and began to pull on the ribbon. The box contained a tea set, a real tea set, not play size like the one she once saw a girl playing with in a book. Frances was very disappointed.
“Give your mum a big squeeze. I have missed you so much. Give me a big hard hug so I can always remember how it feels.”
Her mother had a soft face, with blonde curls falling from under a little red hat. The hat matched the color of her lips and her fingernails. The hug pulled Frances into the folds of a white dress where an exotic scent sealed the moment.

A few days later the tea set disappeared into one of Mrs. Buhle’s cabinets. Mary was determined to get it back to their small room on the third floor.
“It doesn’t belong to them, does it, Frances? It belongs to you; it will always belong to you. I don’t care what she does to me…I’m getting it back.”
Mary was caught, standing on a chair in the pantry. Mrs. Buhle’s daughter watched as her mother pulled Mary off the chair and dragged her into the back room where they kept the punishments.

Draft From: The Last Daughter of Elizabeth Light

My mother was raised in multiple foster homes.  Once she received an orange as a Christmas present.  Her mother never gave her a yellow tea set.

Have I Been Here Before?

At what point did it look familiar? Maybe this was one of those dreams that disappear the moment you open your eyes.  Certainly, I never climbed to the top of Mount Major before, never been to New Hampshire, never wanted to go. But now I’m here, looking out at the view, afraid of getting too close to the edge and falling off. When I pick up the scent of a past moment, I have my feet on the ground, but I’m flying. If I just raise my arms and tip into the air stream, I will be soaring. Flying dreams are the best.

“If I had ever been here before I would probably know just what to do. Don’t you?”- Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young – Déjà Vu

One of the themes of my novel, The Last Daughter of Elizabeth Light, is Eternal Return. Because my story goes backward in time, the present hints at the past. We know the results of actions before they take place. This was easier than it sounds because I was telling a familiar story: a family saga whose story unfolded like an origami bird.

From The Last Daughter of Elizabeth Light-  Frances Baker, 1990 dreaming of San Francisco 1942 :

‘Frances cringed; Milton, the manager, was standing six inches away from her face. Smelling his stale cigarette breath, she tried looking at his yellow teeth but it confused him, so she pretended to be nervous and looked at the floor.

“You know there are many girls I could have hired, Frances, but I chose you, you know why?”

Frances thought this was a question and she started to open her mouth.

“You know why, Frances, you were the prettiest one. Yes, the prettiest one of all of them. You, with your blonde hair. You had the best eyes and legs. You have legs just like Lana Turner.”

Frances managed to step backwards a few inches but he was pressing in. Reaching forward, he slid his hand from her waist to her thigh. Frances jumped and hit the wall with the back of her shoes and head. Her eyes narrowed as she moved out of his way. He tried to block her by putting one arm out to the wall.

“Frances, this is a really good job.”

Milton looked around the lobby with the glow of the concession stand at the end of the hall. The ticket booth had closed, the last show was almost over and they were alone with the muffled sound of a movie playing in the theatre.

“It would be a shame if you spoiled things for yourself. I’m going to be watching you very closely. I better not catch you doing anything wrong. You know what I mean, don’t you, Frances? I mean I better not catch you letting your mother in here for free. Everything has a price. You know we are at war now, everything has a price including this job. Where do you think you’re going? Don’t walk away from me.”

Running, Frances heard him yelling behind her. She turned down one hall, and it led to another. The door was not where it was supposed to be. She felt the wall for knobs in the darkness and realized they were all missing. Suddenly she heard the noise of planes, the building vibrated as though there was an earthquake. The theatre wall began to crumble. Frances started to climb over a slab of cement when a plane appeared to come straight at her.

Droning in some far off room, a vacuum cleaner saved her.’

Finding Your Place

The story takes place in your town; the streets and houses are as familiar as the little wrinkle near your eye. You know where the bus stops, and when the kids from the local high school invade the coffee shop on Elm Street. Maybe your children went to that school, it might be more than likely that you did too. So to write about how it feels to walk down a street, choose the sunny side and smell the freshly baked bread coming out of Greta’s Bakery is easy.

If your place is the city, you jaywalk and nearly get hit by a taxi as you rush to cross to the shady side of the street. The pavement is melting in August; you want to be some place else, so you hurry like everyone around you. You never notice the man with a briefcase staring at you. You stop and check your reflection in the window of Barney’s and when a stranger starts a conversation you’re startled. No one talks to each other in the city.

What happens when the place you are writing about is on the other side of the world and your story begins in 1859. Researching the country, the city, and the era is part of finding the place. Reading journals and letters from public figures are a more intimate glimpse into the daily life of the population. Archives in libraries are often online and reading old newspapers give you the color of events the way they were seen. I found that looking at historic photos of people and streets in my place made it come to life.

How fortunate for me that one of my characters, James Light, took the same ship, The Roman Empire, as Samuel Butler. (How fortunate indeed!) Using Samuel Butler’s life and diaries I had grist for conversations during the long voyage. I found a description of the The Roman Empire and how it sailed into Lyttleton Harbor NZ in 1860. (Time and place recorded in the Lyttleton Times 1860). Somewhere in my digging through the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, I read that a Judge Gresson, lost all his law books on Sumner sand bar (anecdote for character to use). James brought twenty-one boxes of books with him from London (of course he did and none of his books were lost).

When you have done your research putting your characters in a place is like finding a briar patch.

Part of a conversation between James Light and Samuel Butler in The Last Daughter of Elizabeth Light:

They pushed themselves away from the table and pulled out their pipes and small sacks of tobacco. Going out on the deck to catch the night air and enjoy their habit, they rejoiced in the kindness of the weather: the still wind, the calm sea, and the light from the universe allowing them to see each other clearly.

“My mother was born on a large estate in Sussex, her mother was a nursery maid and my great-grandmother was the head housekeeper.”

James looked out over the endless black swells of water.

“I will not pry, as all families have their histories. I am of the belief that what has made us evolve is the struggle and cunning of the individual. This is passed down through the generations by way of unconscious memories and habits. So I am more interested in your daily life and communication with your mother. We all too often tell of the big events and leave out the subtle details that make us who we truly are; what was happening every day is more important. What did you discuss over your evening meal?”

 

 

 

Name Game

`Don’t stand chattering to yourself like that,’ Humpty Dumpty said, looking at her for the first time, `but tell me your name and your business.’

`My name is Alice, but –‘

`It’s a stupid name enough!’ Humpty Dumpty interrupted impatiently. `What does it mean?’

`Must a name mean something?’ Alice asked doubtfully.

`Of course it must,’ Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: `my name means the shape I am — and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost.’”

—– Lewis Carroll, Through The Looking Glass, Chapter VI,
Humpty Dumpty

John Forster wrote that Dickens made his “characters real existences, not by describing them, but by letting them describe themselves”.

Because my novel, The Last Daughter of Elizabeth Light, is based on some threads of family history, I invented names for my characters, whose lives reminded me of what little I knew about them.  Keeping the continuity of the surname Light, which, strangely enough, was an ancestral name that appeared in England in the 1700’s on my family tree, turned out to be one of those wonderful coincidences.

I had too much fun with secondary characters. Here we are introduced to Harold Hollows the first time:

“Taking a closer look at the young man, Elizabeth noticed the splotches of youth still visible on his face and his somewhat fleshy figure. He had small hands and his nails were bitten away.

“I am planning on being a butler for the family, once I gain the experience, that is.  I have a plan—I will return to London in a few years and be able to run the household of any family I choose. What is your plan, Elizabeth?”

Looking down at her, he had already made up his mind that she had somehow ruined whatever chances she might have had. Her baggage—the baby—had sealed her fortune.

“I really don’t have one—do you think it’s necessary?”

The Last Daughter of Elizabeth Light

Some insight to picking names for your characters can be found from Elizabeth Sims

Taking Time

Taking Time

If we steal time                                                                                                                                              the watching never ends.

If we lose time                                                                                                                                               the searching unearths the past.

If we make time                                                                                                                                             the inventing stretches science.

But when we find time                                                                                                                                   the discovery reveals a gift,                                                                                                                       always there to take.

B LeFlore ’09

Writing takes time. Everyone has a routine to make their words take shape on a blank page. My routine while writing The Last Daughter of Elizabeth Light was to carve out three hours a day, sometimes three would turn into six (that was a really good day). I would edit what I wrote the day before first to get back into my characters life.  I was lucky that there were many days they often took off ahead of me and I had to chase them as fast as I could type.

Fact or Fiction

“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” – Mark Twain

Autobiography, Memoir or Fictional Memoir?

An autobiography tells the story of a life, a memoir tells a story from a life with touchstone events and turning points. Relying on memory, well, you know how that goes.

We remember what we want to or how we want to.  There is the saying that there are three sides to every story: mine, yours and the truth. Memory is often a liar.

Is there such a genre as Fictional Memoir?  I think so.  Here’s a list of famous fictional memoirs according to goodreads. 

So why is there a picture of a trapeze artist attached to this post? She is Erma Ward and she could fly.

My grandmother was in the circus = Fact

She had TEX tattooed on her arm = Fact

She saw Erma Ward fly = Fiction

“ I will make it okay. Everything is possible, see—look at Erma, she just lets go. You have to believe.”  – From The Last Daughter of Elizabeth Light