One of my favorite scenes from A CLEFT IN THE WORLD

 

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Did you have one of these?

 

Three days before the rally.

I awake from a disorienting dream in which Lacey and I were thirteen and messing around with a Magic Eight Ball she’d received for her birthday. I rub my eyes, practically poached from the crying I did in the privacy of the shower last night—so as not to alarm Laurel—before going to bed. The dream Lacey—in cut off blue jean shorts and a tank top—held the ball between her palms and said, “Now remember to ask it only yes or no questions.”

I grinned, and asked in the floaty voice of a medium, “Magic Eight Ball, how did I do on the math test? Wait that’s not a yes or no question!” I try again. “Did I do well on the math test?” Lacey nods and turns the ball slowly over in her hands, her short nails bubblegum pink. The triangle containing the message rises into view. Outlook good. “Yay!” I say, making a mock swipe of relief across my brow.

“My turn,” Lacey says, handing me the ball. “Magic Eight Ball, does Truman Parker like Georgie Bricker?”

I purse my lips over a grin, my eyes wide. I rotate the ball and hold my breath as the answer surfaces. You may rely on it. I collapse in rapture on the carpet between Lacey and Karen’s twin beds, planting smooches all over the clunky black ball.

“You know good and well he likes you, G.,” Lacey retorts, “He’s held your hand twice.” She wrestles the ball from me. Her face ages before my eyes, like one of those age progression videos. “Magic Eight Ball” she says, in her clipped adult New York voice, “Will Georgie rescue Willa Cather College?”

The Eight Ball turns in her manicured hands. Cannot predict.

Teasers from A Cleft in the World

From Chapter Twenty-Three, The Rally:

The half-mark of the rally. Raphael Saadiq’s “Keep Marchin’”pumps from the speakers. Just gotta keep, keep marchin’. Keep marchin’ on. The girls dance down from the library porch with the signs they made and hand them out to participants who didn’t make or bring their own. Many of the placards read, Where There’s a Willa, There’s a Way, like our T-shirts, but other clever ones catch my eye: I am girl-cotting This Closing, What Would Willa Do?, and my favorite, We Don’t Wear Pink Hats, Willa Cather Women Wear All the Hats.

I wait for the speeches to begin—bouncing on my toes to the music, my heart racing with hope—next to Truman and my friends, while monitoring the buzz at the donation tables. Someone from on the ground behind the platform calls, “Dudes, bring out that last cooler of water bottles,” and from there, in a tarp shadow so deep my eyes almost skim over them, stand Laurel and Trask locked in an embrace so intense that I touch my breastbone and gulp. Trask seems to speak into Laurel’s ear. Last minute words of inspiration, love? God bless these terrific kids.

My fingers come away damp from where I’ve touched my T-shirt. Am I sweating that badly? Rubbing them together, I look down. Merde, it’s mustard! A long swath of it paints a yellow exclamation point after the word Willa. I wipe my fingers on the dark denim of my skirt. I have to face Truman’s mother like this? My chagrin makes giddiness bubble up inside me: Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?

To our right, Elizabeth Pattison parts the sea of people like the prow of a ship, Isabelle striding in her mother’s wake in cork-soled platform heels. I tear myself away from the mustard stain to look at Laurel and make sure she catches sight of them. She does and turns from Trask to join them at the steps.

Keep on, keep on, keep marchin’. . .

Forgetting my appearance, I take a deep breath for both of us.

From Chapter Two:

Stepping forward, the board chairman Beau Duffy pulls a slight smile, accepts the clip-on mic from Susan and attaches it to his navy and red striped tie. He clears his throat.

Lina pokes my thigh.

A local pediatrician, nearing retirement and the kind of guy who would come over and roust a mouse from your house, Beau surveys us a moment. He peers at his notes. The room has the preternatural hush of a moon. My own deodorant is breaking down, my armpits growing slick.

“I’m not going to dance around this,” the chairman begins, the microphone fuzzing his words for a moment. “In the last two years, Willa Cather’s endowment—that which keeps us in the black—has dropped sixteen million dollars.” Alarm pricks at my skin like an incipient rash.

The chairman motions to the CFO, Sawyer Hays—who resembles a formal Pierce Brosnan—holding a stack of papers to his chest. Agendas? Sawyer’s face and hands are deeply tanned, as though he’s spent a month on his cruising sailboat, The Willa. Considering the state of our endowment he hasn’t been commanding our helm.

The chairman speaks again. “Coming to you are the exact figures.” All heads turn to follow the passing of the stack. The only sounds are the rustle of paper, the creak of metal chair. “As most of our endowment is restricted—it must be used to fund scholarships or faculty salaries and the like—we have been forced to draw from the unrestricted portion for operating expenses.”

I look at Lina as she passes the stack to me, her hand the chill of granite. She murmurs her Italian version of what the hell, “Che cavalo?”

Beau’s ruddy complexion deepens. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are twelve million dollars in debt.” Fear nibbles at my core.

The math instructor fumbles the stack. Pages drift and slide on the marble floor. No one moves to help. A voice rises from near the front, and then a surf of questions break.

“Why are we just hearing about this?”

Two years?”

“What does this mean for salaries?”

Beau raises his hands like a bank teller in a hold up. “Please. Let me finish.”

A gust of wind carrying breath mints and alarm brushes the back of my hair, as people behind us bend and shuffle to grab up the scattered pages.

“The board has voted to create a new position—a one-year interim position—of vice president of finance and administration. Truman, will you stand?” Truman. That’s a name I  haven’t heard in a while. The man stands and turns to face the faculty. My chest tightens the way it did when I once narrowly missed getting t-boned on Fourth Street. “Truman Parker comes to us from Emory University and Columbia Business School. He . . .” The chairman’s voice echoes in the suddenly airless, book-lined room, and bounces off the ceiling.

“The Ivy League to the rescue?” I think I hear Lina whisper over the blood pounding in my ears.

Truman Parker smiles and buttons his navy suit coat, his blue eyes giving off sparks in the dim, old room. Something breaks loose near my heart. The rest of the board chair’s introduction is lost on me. I don’t remember losing my first tooth, the Christmas I first understood that Santa wasn’t real, or what I wore for a Halloween costume in fifth grade. But I’ll never forget the first time I saw the fourteen-year-old strawberry blond, the first boy to capture my heart.

Excerpt from Book # 3, A CLEFT IN THE WORLD

Back in the coupe, I aim for home. Despite the ground sirloin, bacon and ice cream in my backseat, I pull onto the hilltop shoulder just before the turn-off to the college. This perfect birds-eye view of the campus that has been my home stops my breath and heart. In the slanting afternoon sun, it’s an enchanted green isle, the rising sun-bleached steeples and towers like the turrets of a great castle, the winding roads like soft gray rivers. In twenty-five years, its beauty is undiminished. For a moment, I simply sit there, feeling a peculiar peace and stillness stealing over me and soothing my worries. I sit with my hands on the wheel, thinking of all the young women who arrived here first with trunks, then with smart hard Samsonite cases, then boxes, and monogrammed duffle bags full of hopes and dreams.

My Grandmother, a Beauty Icon

I wrote a little piece for submission to the beauty & style section of Southern Living Magazine. It was well received, but as they have quite a backlog, we’ll see it in print one of these months.

My grandmother, Lucille Oeland Sumner of Greenville, S.C., was a glamour puss. Though elegant in every sense of the word, Mudda—as I called her–had a lively sense of humor and often dissolved into helpless giggles. She never failed to meet me at the door of her home without a, “Hey, darlin,’ you’re so beautiful!”

A self-taught hat designer, Mudda opened a home studio in the nineteen forties, Lucille’s Studio of Millinery, where an array of her creations blossomed from pegs and faceless forms. I remember gloved ladies coming by to shop the collection, that would make a derby party attendee salivate. Trying on those hats as a little girl made me feel as beautiful as Mudda believed I was.

I was riveted by her beauty routine. My grandmother poured L’Air du Temps perfume into an atomizer with a big puffer and then spritzed it on. She plumped her slender lips by creating an exaggerated cupid’s bow with rose lipstick. She did her eyes, wearing the only pair of magnifying make-up applying readers I’ve seen to this day.

And her hair! When an occasion called for an updo, Mudda matched hair pieces to her Clairol Summer Blonde coif. In the nineteen sixties when mature women cropped their hair, Mudda wore hers longer. She hosted cocktail parties in taffeta hostess skirts, a white gypsy blouse, and gold shoulder-brushing loops.

Darlin’, she was so beautiful.

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Book Number Three Has A Name!

In its first months of life–through research, a twelve-page outline and the first six chapters–my poor book baby has lived with a blank name card on its bassinet. Like a newborn, whose parents declared they couldn’t name her until they knew her, she waited.

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The chapters are prefaced by quotes from brave women, including the late great literary author Willa Cather. One that sums up my main character’s initial propensity toward seclusion reads, “How easy it would be to dream one’s life out in some cleft in the world.”

I’ve seen my baby’s face. I know her bones, her personality, her quirks, when she needs to be fed or changed.

Her name is A CLEFT IN THE WORLD.

I can’t wait for you to meet her.

Let’s Play Ball!

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In the spirit of baseball season and my fave team, The St. Louis Cardinals, this half scene from GEORGIE GIRL will leave you wanting extra innings.

Spring was passing like one of those flip books where you draw your thumb across the edge, and the pictures move in quick succession to make a story. Following a fortnight of rain and unseasonable humidity, everyone was excited to turn out on a beautiful day for the final Browning baseball game.

I poked an orange macramé belt through the loops of my jeans and cinched it tight—my waist was getting so small—then pulled my hair into a ponytail with a hank of blue ribbon. Truman came by early with a surprise for Ronnie: an oiled leather baseball glove, a scuffed ball in its palm. He flexed his fingers like a cat’s claw. “It’s too small for me now. Thought you might like to have it.” Ronnie beamed so brightly you could have read by him.

We headed en masse down the hill and past the Persimmon trees to the immaculate ball field where the white lines stood out like radioactive bones against the Virginia clay. My mother, who had convinced my father she could handle the walk, looked pretty in jeans and a sleeveless blouse, an orange cotton scarf knotted around her throat.

At the field, the aroma of hotdogs and popcorn from the equipment shed/concession stand made my stomach rumble. “Can I have two hotdogs, Daddy?” Ronnie asked. Little greedy-guts.

My parents and Miss Foxie took seats on the front row generally reserved for faculty. Truman and I stomped up to the top row of the student section—where Lacey and Findley waited amidst a flock of orange-and blue-clad spectators—and exchanged greetings.

Miss Magpie teetered across the grass in high-heeled sandals and tight white pedal pushers; a blouse tied at the waist, a yellow hat and Jackie O. sunglasses.

“Oh Lordy,” I saw Miss Foxie mouth to my mother.

I grinned at Lacey. “I know what those two are thinking, don’t you?”

“Yep. It’s not yet May, and Magpie’s wearing . . .”

“White pants,” we finished in tandem, giving each other a high five.

A trio of seniors in front of us snickered at the woman. “What a slut,” one of them murmured.

From the dugout, Coach Lucius Cassidy regarded the players’ warm-up and whistled “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Dr. Banks—a baseball fanatic who had played for Duke University—strode to the announcer’s table, his grin wide as the horizon.

Miss Magpie picked her way to the dugout. “Yoo-hoo, Coach Cas-si-dy!” she called, blowing her husband an ostentatious kiss. A sudden gust of wind blew the hat down over her face. Miss Magpie snatched it from her head and abruptly sat on the front row, swiping at the lipstick that streaked its brim. The top rows cracked up.

Dr. Banks and the announcer for the opposing team, Karen’s school, Laurel Ridge High, called the players out one by one. Karen, who had zero interest in family events or team sports, was not in attendance.

Lacey and I hooted and cheered when Frank’s name was called, and then stood for the invocation and national anthem. I looked at Truman, handsome in the orange and blue plaid shirt I remembered from the fall, and wished I could rewind the months to when our love had been carefree. But then, he smiled and put his arm around me, and I relaxed in his embrace.

The Browning Eagles scored two runs in the first inning. Dr. Banks’s bass voice from the loud speakers was exuberant. Laurel Ridge scored one run in the second. At shortstop, Frank’s body thrummed, his cleated shoes seeming to hover above the packed earth.

At the fence behind first base, Clover and Blue stood in the red dust, their feet bare, their fingers hooked through the chain link fence. Clover held a ragdoll with yellow hair the color of her own in the crook of her arm. Now and then she looked down at it, a fond smile curving her lips.

“Who’s ready for a hotdog?” Lacey asked.

Findley’s legs were bouncing like bad checks. “Wait till the bottom of the fourth.” The score was tied, six-six.

“Let’s you and me go, Lace,” I said.

We squeezed to the end of the row and hopped onto the grass. We passed my father and brother on their way back from the shed, Ronnie clutching a dog and grinning, his cheeks already painted with mustard. Lacey and I fell in line behind a broad-shouldered boy with a tight bottom and dark wavy hair.

My heart sped up. Kelly.

 

Lacey said, “Hi, Kelly!”

 

He turned and dipped his chin. “Ladies.”

“Gorgeous day, huh?” Lacey said.

“Yeah, the best,” he answered, looking at the unsullied blue miracle of sky and then at me.

“Next!” the surly senior working the window demanded, a greasy apron around his middle.

Kelly stepped up. “A dog and a Coke, please,” he said. Kelly’s changed so much. He even has polite manners. I wish he could sit with us at the game and be friends with everyone. But Truman would—

“Where are you guys sitting?”

Lacey shaded her eyes and pointed to our seats. “We’re on the top right.”

Findley waved. He raised two fingers and pointed to his chest: Get me two. Truman’s face was shadowy and very still.

Something blew into my eye. “Oww,” I said, holding my eye open wide with my fingers. “Lacey, what’s in my eye?”

Before Laceycould move, Kelly stepped forward and gently took my chin in his hand. My heart trip hammered in my chest.

Oh, no, is Truman looking?

Kelly, his breath warmer than the afternoon sun on my face, said, “Close your eyes.” His finger touched the corner of my eye and scraped softly downward. “Here’s the culprit.”

Blinking rapid fire, my eye streaming, I peered at a tiny blade of grass on his fingertip.

“Thanks,” I said, brushing the tears from my cheek. I didn’t dare look at Truman.

“Dog and a Coke!” the concession guy barked.

Kelly collected his refreshments, then smiled at me and then at Lacey. “Well, guess I’ll see you at school Monday.”

My heart was still pounding as I took my place beside Truman, my mind a tilt-a-whirl ride.

He eyed me as I unwrapped my hotdog and took a bite.  . . .

Panning for Gold

Writing a scene today, in which the main character’s memories are sifting down to her from a painful past. She’s comparing the feeling to panning for gold. Check out this cool video I found on youtube to learn how it’s done and how to use the right terminology: https://youtu.be/PxfcAhS08u0.

Now, if you’re still with me, here’s how it looks in the scene:

In the safety of my coupe again, I sit in the parking lot of the market, my hands on the wheel, my breath fogging the windows. Since Truman Parker came to town, the memories have swirled and concentrated, stratifying and settling themselves apart from the rest—like soil through a gold panner’s sluice. The worst memory of all seems to be coming for me, though I can’t yet see its shape.

 

Today’s one word prompt “chaos” in one hundred words or fewer.

Chaos & Chemistry

Remember the show, Get Smart?

CONTROL spies, Agents 86 and 99, were out to destroy the evil KAOS.

Bimagesut in 1965, I had no context for clever acronyms. I simply wanted to be Agent 99. Barbara Feldon’s lustrous bob, velveteen voice, and mod little suits made her the distillation of cool. And how she longed for her partner, bumbling Agent 86! Though she batted her lush lashes and gazed at him with adoration as he muttered into a shoe/transmitter, he remained oblivious.

The dissonance created some of television’s first sexual tension, to-die-for chemistry, and “emotional KAOS” for Agent 99. Chaos

The Book Bracelet

Miss Ruth.

The administrator that took a chance on me, hiring me to teach fresh off the college vine. A fine teacher in her own right, Ruth taught me as much about myself as she did about nurturing and educating children.

Fast forward twenty-five years.

Ruth has since retired, but in all my years, she is still the best administrator I ever had. Recently, she and I reconnected via facebook. One day she asked for my snail mail address, and I curiously awaited what the mail would bring.

Ruth had learned that I had ventured into a second career, full-time writing. I opened a pretty, decorated box with this special silver book bracelet tucked inside. The note read, “. . . I am so proud of your achievements in teaching and now writing. You are an exceptional young woman, and I love you.”

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Ahhh, Sweet Young Love . . .

Here’s a Valentine’s Day excerpt from GEORGIE GIRL.

On Valentine’s Night, Truman arrived early to pick me up for our double date with Lacey and Findley. My parents kindly left us alone in the living room.

Truman looked adorable in a big, army green parka. Pulling a heart shaped box of candy from his pocket, he shrugged the coat from his shoulders, threw it across a chair, and caught me up in a kiss.

Breathless and grinning, I handed him his valentine, not a thought of Kelly on my radar. Lacey could assume anything she wanted, but I knew my virtue was proven. “Happy Valentine’s Day, Legacy.”

He unwound the blue cashmere scarf his parents had given him for Christmas that made his eyes hot sapphires. “Happy Valentine’s Day, Georgie Girl.”

He sat and ripped the envelope open with a thumb. My face pinked when he read the signature aloud.

“I love you too. Now, it’s your turn.” There were a lot of words inside my card. “I wrote you a poem.” He sniffed. “It’s not that great.” But his eyes skated my face as I silently read the words:

Georgie Girl

A boyish name belies

Her tender feminine ways.

Like her fingers through my hair,

Love twines through my days

Something stirred deep inside me. He liked it when I played with his hair. I read the words again, wanting to capture them like snowflakes on my tongue. “True, it’s too much.”

“Nah. You’re my sweetheart,” he murmured, the words roping around my heart.

My parents thumped around the back of the apartment, my mother calling to Ronnie to come get in the bathtub. Truman and I leaned against the back of the sofa. We kissed, our lips parting, melding. He slipped a hand into my hair, gathering it into a knot at the nape of my neck. Settling into his embrace, I kissed his cheek and earlobe, the one with the single freckle.

Ronnie popped up from behind the sofa. “Surprise!”

I screamed. Truman huffed out a breath of disbelief, his jaw appearing to have come unhinged. I was on my feet, ready to murder my brother.

“What the hell are you doing, you little monster?” I shouted. Ronnie scooched down and crawled from behind the sofa. He sprinted for the kitchen door and turned the knob, looking wildly over his shoulder. Our father jerked the door open.

My parents stood woodenly on the other side, my father’s face following Ronnie as he pushed roughly past.

“Do you know what that little brat did?” I said, my hands on my hips. I wanted to drag my brother by one scrawny arm down to the river and drown him.

“Back down, Georgie,” my father said.

“No, I won’t.”

My father raised his eyebrows about two inches. “Elizabeth George—”

“Georgie,” Truman said from the doorway. I’d all but forgotten he was there. He addressed my parents. “Ronnie played a little trick on us.”

“He invaded my privacy,” I said, my voice raised. “He had no business—”

“I don’t like your tone, Georgie,” my father said.

My mother sat down at the table where two cups waited for coffee, and turned my father’s chair around with her foot. He heaved a sigh, and sat looking up at me, with his long hands on his thighs.

“What in the world happened?” my mother asked.

“Ronnie was hiding behind the sofa.” I looked at Truman, who nodded slightly. “We were exchanging valentines. He jumped up and scared us half to death.”

“They were hugging and kissing, too,” Ronnie called from the safety of the hall.

Wanting to squash his head like a bug, I covered my face with my hands, but peeked through a crack at Truman, who was staring at his watch as though it had just appeared on his wrist.

“Ronnie,” my mother said, “please, go to your room.”

My hands fell. Were they going to let me have it for talking ugly to Ronnie in front of Truman?

My father scrubbed his hand over his mouth, his eyes moving between Truman and me.

“About your conduct with Truman . . .” my mother said.

My face flamed as brightly as the burner beneath the coffee pot. “We were just kissing.”

My father closed his eyes. “We didn’t know Ronnie was there,” I said feebly.

My father shot me a look. “This is not about Ronnie.”

“Georgie and Truman,” my mother said evenly. “It’s normal for you to want to share your affection, but remember when you’re in the throes of young love, it’s easy to get . . . swept away by feelings.”

My pulse raced with mortification. I could feel the heat coming off Truman’s face.

He turned to me. “Your parents are right. What we were doing was inappropriate.”

The only thing holding me up was breathing. What? We weren’t doing anything wrong, I said with my eyes. The rattling boil of the coffee pot drew our gazes. My mother got to her feet and lifted it from the stove.

Truman lowered his chin and spoke to my father. “I didn’t act like a gentleman,” he said miserably. “I imposed on your . . . hospitality. I’m sorry.”

Seriously?

My mother looked at me and raised a brow. But shock had taken my tongue and lopped it off. “We know you’re a gentleman, honey,” she said.

My father stood and put a hand on Truman’s shoulder. “Thank you, Truman. Considering your apology, you may still escort Georgie to the movies as planned. But we’ll expect you to have her in this door by curfew and then say goodnight.”

“Yes, sir. Absolutely.”

“We’ll talk with you when you get home,” my mother said to me.

Truman and I retrieved our coats and left the apartment.

“Want my scarf?” he asked.

I glared at him. “No!”

“Georgie—”

“You took my parents’ side and embarrassed the heck out of me! How could you?” My teeth chattered with rage. Truman unwrapped his scarf. I shook off his hand. “I don’t want your damned scarf.”

. . .