Friday, November 01, 2013

An Ineluctable Modality: Chapter 1

An Ineluctable Modality is a novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo's 2013 Challenge where the goal was to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. This year, I wrote a novel-in-blog-posts. 

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For a long time, I used to wake up early. Usually, moments before the darkness of the night would fade with the faintest glimmer of the morning sun, I would not even realize I was waking up, it happened so suddenly. Other times, it was the long, slow process of surfacing from the bottom of the sea, gradually, reluctantly, tempting me to roll over toward the wall, away from the window where, eventually, sunlight would force me to face another day. It was good that I rarely needed an alarm clock except on cloudy days when it always seemed easier to oversleep.

On days when I had to be at school for an early class, I would quietly crawl out of bed hoping not to wake my wife sleeping beside me, though nothing ever seemed to disturb her, she slept so soundly. If she had to get up in the middle of the night, I would instantly be aware of some disturbance, whether it actually woke me or not.

But those days were gone, now, not that it took much to remind myself. Even after six years, it was still like waking up in a strange place, getting used to things all over again. The room would come into focus and I would remind myself there was no school today – there was, in fact, no school – not any more, not for me.

Since I had retired, there was no longer the need to wake up so early, no hurry to get the day started and I often found myself thinking "another hour would not be so bad, would it?" Then I would turn to the wall again, pulling at the covers.

But usually I found, once awake, getting back to sleep was never the rest I'd sought and I'd lie there conscious that it was all a pretense, trying to keep my eyes closed. "What was the point?" and so I'd sit up on the edge of the bed and look around. What day was it, I'd wonder – sometimes, it was hard to tell. Another day. Wasn't that enough?

I supposed I ought to feel thankful for that, adding with a sarcastic edge, "at my age." Another day, another week – that's right, and now another month – one thing after another, the irreclaimable March of Time – tempus continues to fugit, the ticking of my life's clock.

Not everybody would wake up this morning, fortifying themselves with coffee, go about their day, and feel the rewards of a life that has, admittedly, lasted longer than I could have imagined as a child. Tick tock, tick tock...

I keep no clock in my bedroom since I moved here, as if not knowing what time it was would keep me younger.

The beach was quiet yesterday, walking along the sea, grim and overcast as it was with a long expanse of visible grayness in all directions. Rocks, water, seafoam, sky, clouds, everything seemed gray, even the trees which, shedding their leaves, were darker gray against the near-blackness of the pines. The sound was even gray, tatters of sound carried across on the tattered wind.

The tourists had largely left which made the beach habitable again. My boots – his boots, inherited ("they came with the house," I'd say, my uncle's boots) – clattered against the rounded stones worn down by centuries of waves, I'd like to think. How water has shaped them. And time.

Visibility was intense under the clouds, vibrant even if the light was limited. It was not a damp expanse of air I stood in, then. But there was a storm coming, they said, perhaps not much of one but a change in the weather.

Imagine that – "a change in the weather!" Another summer had come and gone and winter was not far off, despite autumn's clinging to the calendar. A change, indeed.

A young man walked behind me, a child, perhaps, I couldn't tell, at first. I turned and looked. No, it wasn't – no one there. For a change, there was no one in sight. Me as a child, perhaps, visiting Grandpa?

How odd when last month this place was teaming with people who'd come to gawk at our beach and soak up our atmosphere.

No, I hadn't lived here long enough to think is was even partly mine, though, not yet. According to Henry who's lived here only six more years than I.

We're still making the transition, Henry and I, like some leg-sprouting fish not yet ready for land.
The leaf-peepers had gone, now that the foliage season reached its peak two weeks ago and though the weather had gotten colder, I was surprised to find it was so mild as I strolled along the quiet beach. When I first moved here, I was not prepared for the cold but now I realized I was not prepared for this autumnal warm-up, a last gasp before snow.

Trudging along, I'd thought of rolling up my trousers, sorry I had not brought along a peach when I stubbed my toe against a particularly large stone I should have seen. "The proof is in the rock, Algy, sorry," and thinking of Michelangelo, I went.

The first of November was something of an anniversary for me, one of those remembrances that passed for anything else worth recollecting. My birthday would be coming soon enough, but that was something less and less looked forward to – endured, perhaps.

God, it was good to turn from cliff to sea, horizon limited on my left by gray rock topped by trees and town, limitless on my right out toward the sea, topped by clouds and seabirds.

It was on this day, now seven years down, I'd been told my uncle died and his house, if I wanted it, was mine. It surprised me, like a mild November day surprised me, that he had still been alive.

Or, now that he was gone, that I was his only heir, like some distant cousin come into an unexpected inheritance. Not that he was my rich uncle. Or I his poor nephew.

His lawyer, Madeleine LeMare, reminded me, while I was here, to think about it, not that I needed to make up my mind to live in it or sell, not right away. Propitious, I thought – my wife's name, that (Madeleine, I mean).

But, yes, winter was coming and these things needed considering, didn't they? No pressure but, yes, it felt like it. I was not one to make quick decisions, not since Madeleine died (my wife, that is, that Madeleine). I looked at her and tried not to frown.

He'd been a man in his early-90s, my uncle, who, for the most part, lived in his own home until the end. It was, she said, a good life if lonely but added "the property needed work," though dismissing my fears it was run down. My aunt had died decades ago, her funeral the last time I'd visited what Dad had called The Homestead. It wasn't much, then.

His great-grandparents had built the house in 1870, an old-style farmhouse even if it wasn't really a farm. I don't remember many of the details. We last visited my grandparents when I was in my teens and the place was, to my mind, ancient then.

But of all those sons and daughters, sisters and uncles over the generations, I was now his closest heir? We had never been a close family, moving away and only rarely coming back to visit, the occasional summer holiday, but still, what were the odds?

It turned out my uncle had been a bit of a miser: frugal, as the lawyer put it. He could have put a little more into the house, I thought.

I came into town yesterday to have lunch with Henry, an old friend – a friend of long standing who was also now old, just to be clear. Bald, he was, and had the air of a millionaire and judging from the house he lived in, Henry Jordan was no one's poor nephew. His house was in the village, though, above those cliffs, a grand house with a grand view of the sea which at times frightened him.

Older than me by a decade, he looked younger, lacking the white hair that automatically aged a man. Stately, plump, a young buck in his day, he was still vital and easily dominated his surroundings. We would meet upon the beach and walk a bit.

This would be the last time this month he might be free, he'd warned me, though he did not need to explain – he talked of little else for the past two weeks, at least on those occasions we spoke.

He was like a child looking forward to a holiday but with no idea where his holiday would take him and this didn't frighten him.

Henry challenged me, hand extended with his ash-sword, a swashbuckler without the costume. His cane, a hand-carved walking stick that was once his father's, waved harmlessly in my general direction. "A duel," he coughed, "a duel," and pranced about the strand.

It was November and he, like millions more (or so he figured) would spend his waking hours writing a novel. The goal in thirty days was to write 50,000 words.

He would be up at the crack of dawn, earlier if he could manage, ready to leave. And the strangest bit was, he wanted me to go with him. A duel, indeed...

I laughed when he first suggested it – "Me? Write a novel?" I figured he was joking but laughed all the more when I realized he was serious.

His workroom was set, a studio looking out over the sea. I imagined pirates coming ashore, the way he talked of adventure. The desk was ready, lined with notes and index cards – for he had been outlining for days, now – his laptop disconnected from the internet (to diminish the ultimate distraction), and he would face toward the sea and await his inspiration.

"But you know what you're going to write about?" I asked.

"No," he said, "not really." And this didn't frighten him.

"But you've been outlining for days, you said," I said.

"I know the bones but how I'll flesh them out – who knows?"

He pranced a bit more, trying to rouse my interest but I only laughed more, as much at the idea of me writing 50,000 words in a month as at the sight of him, standing there, round young virgin – so far as novels went – overflowing with anticipation.

For years, he told me when he first brought this up, he had wanted to do this and finally decided – who knew how much time he'd have left – that it was now or never. He brandished his cane at a passing seagull.

"It would mean so much if you would join me: we could spar each other on."

"You mean 'spur,' don't you?"

"That, too."

I laughed, but I declined.

The morning turned even grayer as I stood on my porch with my morning's first cup of coffee. Initially, it looked like the sun would break through – then, teasingly, it did for a moment before disappearing again. The weather, typical of Maine, was constantly changing, something I still haven't gotten used to, but it was November, now, and soon we could add snow to the endless variations.

If I put the porch furniture back out – at least a chair – I knew with the wind kicking up again, it was only a matter of time before I'd have to drag it back in. Would it be long enough to enjoy my coffee?

Despite the mugginess, it could still turn out to be a one day Indian Summer if it lasted even that long. There was no point in checking the weather forecast – a thankless job in New England at best – and I knew better than to consult my neighbors.

With a wink and a smile, they'd trot out all the old sayings for the newcomer: "if you don't like the weather, wait a minute." And that was just to start.

The days grow shorter, the afternoon ending earlier each day, faster now that November is here though it will stall a bit this weekend as we pay homage to the government's attempt to regulate the sun.

At least I'll have an extra hour's sleep to enjoy on Sunday or perhaps more likely wake up an hour earlier, once I've changed my clocks. An extra hour to spend doing nothing-in-particular.

Try as I might, I have never successfully re-set my body clock. It grows old in habit and wakes me when it wants to (tick tock, tick tock).

Henry will be glad of the extra hour to write, no doubt. I wonder how it's going?

Creativity never struck me as a communal thing, something we did as a group. I'd sat in enough faculty meetings to bear that out even when I was young and still idealistic. There was nothing worse than a meeting to kill a good idea and I had no interest in wasting my time – or my ideas – in the service of an academic committee. The only faculty member under 30 in the music department when I started at Cheatham College, I let the dinosaurs run the business: they would, anyway. Once elevated to fossilhood, I saw it had now become fashionable to let the younger generation bring things forward.

The first order of business for any committee had been to give its project a name, sometimes even before it really knew why it existed. I always suggest "Fred," met at first with polite laughter then, over the years, with mounting annoyance until I was being accused of not taking things seriously.
But I'd been quite serious, just not serious about the things they wanted me to be serious about. Wasn't that the point of being creative, letting one's inhibitions go, finding the... – whatever the cliché was before someone came up with the "Inner Child"? Creativity was play, after all, but that was something only artists (I mean, creative artists) seemed to understand.

Judging from most of the academics I worked with, whose purpose in life was take what creative artists created and analyze the hell out of it so other academics could understand how in fact we'd done that, "play" had nothing to do with it.

And here was Henry Jordan, my old friend, living up to his eyeballs in the success generated by his family's business, who decided one day he would write a novel. Of course, the whole point of this challenge, as he explained it, was to commit yourself to writing enough words to qualify for a book thick enough to be called a novel.

Quality had nothing to do with it. That wasn't the point. If you made the goal – and really, 50,000 words was, what... 115 pages, perhaps? not very much of a novel – you got a prize for showing up at the finish line.

But wasn't it just another issue to undermine our already delicate self-awareness that, thirty days down the road, you might have something that was so thoroughly indigestible, it wouldn't last two days as kindling for the fire?

Then he could sit back and call himself an author while I was stewing at my desk still trying to find enough confidence to think of myself as a composer.

"All you have to do to get started is come up with a title," he'd told me over lunch yesterday, "and that should be enough to get things flowing." (What things?) We'd found a quiet diner off the cove where the servers weren't all dressed in Halloween costumes (pirates, most of them – how original). "It's not like you're committed to it, you can always change it."

For me, titles were usually generic descriptions like Symphony No. 1 or Violin Sonata, unimaginative at least to begin but better than "Work in Progress." As the piece evolved, as inspiration met the challenge of getting from one point to another, perhaps something else might suggest itself.

He wouldn't tell me his title or for that matter anything about his would-be novel's plot, something about jinxing the process making him cautious on his first time out. Would his father have stroked a rabbit's foot before starting on a business gamble? I'm sure, good Catholic that he'd been, it involved a good deal of praying: after all, rabbit's feet were only superstitions; taking a lap around the beads was faith.

Somewhere between the end of the sandwich and the second cup of coffee – which there, I was told, was very good – Henry became increasingly sullen and eventually accused me of being a wet blanket.
"I'm not trying to talk you out of it: enjoy yourself, have a blast," I said, "but certainly you don't need me to go along with you, do you?"

If he wouldn't tell me his title, how could we discuss plot details and character development, if that was to be the benefit of writing in tandem?

"And one thing I'm sure of, is the world doesn't need a novel by me."

I'd walked down to the edge of the wood to pick up some branches that had fallen in last night's wind even though the grass would need no more mowing this season, I was sure. But then the wind suddenly blew up and strafed through the trees. I would come back tomorrow to pick up the rest. And then it began to pour.

One foot in front of the other – nacheinander – and I would eventually make my way back to the house, temporarily blinded by the rain. It was the way you got through anything that had a contiguous fashion.

When Monday was an unpleasant reminder that the weekend was far away, we'd count the days, one after the other. That way, it didn't seem so long, waiting till Friday. I was convinced we'd discovered how to speed up time.

But then before long, another month was gone and the summer would soon be over and now a year had passed. Suddenly, we could not stop its galloping along (ticktóck ticktóck).

Autumn was a pensive time of year, a time to lean against the fence and watch the leaves change color and fall. We had those days a few weeks back and I savored them, standing in the corner of my porch, oblivious to the world beyond.

It was almost as magical as that first autumn I lived here, six times 'round the cycle, since, listening to its music of the spheres, its timeless cadence.

There were years the trees were like a brilliant sunset lasting a week, and others when clouds obscured the sun and failed to notice as it merely sank, leaden, beneath the horizon. Soon it will grow cold and white – despite its sunny days – the nighttime of the year.

There was a variety to change and its inevitability, even in this slow-moving kind, if one could recognize the pattern. The sudden changes of mood, fluctuations and transformations, were, like many things these days, a memory of the past. Spread out into seasons and cycles, the ups and downs of decades were marked by historical events (or not) with the effortlessness and inevitability of orbits.

But the real variety came in comparing me as I stood here this morning with me who walked around this yard six years ago, much less with me who ran through my grandmother's garden, chasing butterflies, fifty summers before that. Nebeneinander, one thing next to another.

I'd made it to the porch, soaked, and looked back toward the valley I knew existed beyond the trees, the way I knew that finally it was Friday and the weekend was upon us. Then I went inside to change into some dry clothes.

Behind me, I could hear someone say, perhaps in the tone I recalled from my grandmother, "you'll catch your death of cold."

And someone else, more recent, would respond, "old wives' tale..."

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * * be continued...

Dick Strawser

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