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Writing A Novel - An Excerpt

June

An impatient driver lays on his horn. A chorus of angry honks follows, as if to ask: w-t-f, you honk’n at me?

Jeff squints through the smoke off his Marlboro cigarette in the half-light of a new summer evening. A light breeze blows his Brooks Brothers tie skyward before it settles back down into the espresso cup he’d grabbed from the thirty-seventh-floor kitchenette.

Shit. Jeff throws the Marlboro down, grinds it out with a spit-shined Italian leather loafer, rubs the wet end of his coffee-stained tie dry. He’d better stop this dirty habit before it ruined all of his ties. Or his relationship with his wife. He sighs, checks his watch. He’s ruined that relationship already, thank you very much. Jeff feels his shoulders begin their faint trembling when the guilt begins to get to him. No way he’d make it home in time for their usual eight p.m. dinner. He better call. It would be another late evening of fixed income securities and interest rate derivatives. Still, Jeff needed a break from the relentless glow of his computer monitor. Maybe he needed one from his wife, as well. Life had forced him to be this brutally honest. All of her bad luck, it was bringing him down. He was trying to make it all work, but the pressure had been tremendous. He can’t stomach any more of her bad news. She is an accident waiting to happen.

Across the shadowed patio rooftops, ceramic-potted topiaries resemble little gnomes, or miniature monsters. He rubs his eyes, shifts his gaze to the shimmering skyline and all the energy that fueled a city that never slept. Across the service alley and in the window of the neighboring office building, Jeff spies Jenny working in the dark. He knew the drill: she’d tap a company pen on her desk, sit for several minutes, swivel around and rise up from her chair with a company coffee cup. She’d seem melancholy in the fatigued way she’d pull herself over to the window. Those impossible curves she had, made an unclean mind wander. Enough so that several months ago Jeff had arranged to bump into her at the Starbucks in her building’s lobby one morning. And Jeff discovered that she was in her 20’s, happy, and brunette—everything his wife wasn’t. Bought her a Grande Carmel Macchiato, with lots of froth to cover her full lips as they caressed the coffee cup’s rim. The barrister had written Jenny on her cup with an i instead of a y. And she was that kind of girl who deserved that circle above her i, even a smiley face, or a heart. Or at least he had thought. His relationship with Jenny was supposed to be all in good fun—innocent flirting. But it was getting way too involved, lately, and he was feeling enormously guilty. Jenny was a tad bit obsessed, and it scared him. But tonight she doesn’t walk to the window. She stays at her desk typing furiously at her computer, which was glowing fluorescent in the dark. She was playing hard to get.

Jeff shivers, the same shiver where someone standing next to you would inevitably ask: Someone walking over your grave? Not Jeff’s grave. Maybe those old guys in the office cafeteria, who always ate those greasy cheeseburgers for lunch. Thinking again of his wife, he blanches. He better quit the cigarettes. Try to be better to Mandy. Of course she would be sad and needy in her fragility. Who wouldn’t be? But the problem was, after a long day raking in the dough, he’d rather grab a beer with the guys. Or go see Jenny. If only Jenny would calm down for God’s sake. Someone’s going to start talking. He’d ask her to chill only recently.

Jenny turns towards the window. He tries to catch her attention, but she’s grabbing reports off the printer. No use. You gotta be kidding me, he thinks. Normally she’d look over to see whether or not he’s out for his cigarette break. What’s up? He’ll call her. He grabs at his pocket for his cell phone and at the same time he’s juggling his tepid black coffee in its recyclable paper cup and it slips from his fingers, and he’s too busy watching the lukewarm liquid splash onto the black tar of the rooftop like a Rorschach inkblot, so he misses the creak of the steel door that has opened behind him. A shrink would certainly have a field day with me, is all he is thinking. He texts Jenny instead. “Meet me at Ian O’Connor’s pub at 11:00 p.m.,” he writes, then presses send. But at that precise moment, she turns off her computer and her office goes dark.

Suddenly, there comes this overpowering scent of strong cologne. Jeff recognizes the sound of stiff sleeves stretching fabric, and a low, menacing grunt and he feels himself pitch, a loose-limb stumble towards the edge of the building—gangly and awkward like in a comedy routine on SNL—but this wasn’t funny at all. All the questions started racing in his head and then begin to brake hard to slow motion, before he recognizes his own screams—the terrifying, cooling rush of wind. Mandy, I’m sorry he thinks as he falls and everything … fades to black until there’s nothing.

An elderly couple walking their golden lab discovers Jeff in the service alley. The older gentleman punches 911 on his cell phone while his fragile wife huddles in her husband’s overcoat, unable to look at the young man who is lying in the alley like a broken puppet. The police unit assigned to investigate Jeff’s death calls him Brooks Brother, initially. Next to his badge, in his plush office, Brooks Brother has left a suicide note.

The lead police officer with the red face, porous nose, and meatball grinder in his hand, closes his eyes at the photograph of the young man with the beaming smile. Who wouldn’t smile to be an officer at one of the largest commercial banks in Manhattan? What demons did this guy have hidden in his closet? Work pressure, probably.

July

Mandy sets off walking, leaning into the blowing wind. Another stormy evening and she is tired. The sailboat at the dock is slamming into the wooden pylons with every push of an angry, insolent wave, and she’s not caring. An inanimate object would only be ruined. It wouldn’t feel pain. It wouldn’t die. Still, she thinks the antique sailboat is lovely and does not want it damaged.

The wind is picking up and so she turns back and sees the sea-grass blowing wildly, which gets her worrying about the cottage’s roof shingles. From her vantage point, though, the house looks idyllic—a shock of pure white snow atop the ivory sand of a dune cliff that had been eroding measurably each year. Circa 1900, a construction date that usually meant good bones. Beyond the house, thankfully, the untended gardens remain invisible; the untrimmed perennials are hidden. Only she knows that the sea-grass grows awry against the house. That a shutter on the sidewall is askew. But, the knowledge still bothers her like a sordid secret. Everything had turned off-kilter since it’d happened. And it was all her fault.

Mandy looks up at the darkening sky. Are you there, Jeff? She wills him to speak to her. When he doesn’t, when there’s no sign from above, Mandy crumbles to her knees, like the wet sand beneath her feet, the rotted roof shingles on the cottage, and her deteriorated marriage. She wanted to ask him, why? A year ago, she might have shrugged off the inconvenience of the damaged shingles, shrugged off the vague feeling of disquiet she’d felt about Jeff. For hope. But she had none of that left. I’m sorry, she says instead. It was all my fault, she thought, yet again.

Negative, I’m so negative—positive thoughts are what I need most, Mandy thinks. She rises to her feet with determination, like the foals she had seen down at Clossen’s barn yesterday. But the wind drives dagger-like sand pellets into her eyes, and the assaulting rain begins, like a monsoon. Mandy cinches the hood of her thin windbreaker tight around her head, forgets to knot it. Still, the rain lashes at her face, beats at her resolve to walk. What seemed like a good idea a few minutes ago, doesn’t now. She half gallops, half stumbles over the cement-colored sand. The good thing is that the waves are roaring noise so loud it leaves her numb to any kind of thought, except their consoling sound. “Shhh”, they murmur as they roll in. “Phew,” they cajole as they roll out, phew? She listens closely and after she hears it a second time, she screams at the retreating sea, Please don’t say that out loud! Even as she’s thought the very same thing before.

At the funeral home, all those kind people had also murmured “Shhh”. There had been the concerned gazes, the masked awareness that she had lost him well before he’d died. And Mandy had been the last to know it. But he had repudiated himself in the manner of how he had died. Which was incomprehensible to Mandy. I’m sorry, Jeff, is what she thought. Day after day, all day long.

Mandy walks and thinks and knows she shouldn’t let her mind wander like this, but it always seems to happen. Maybe if she hadn’t escaped New York to come here, if she were still surrounded by all her friends to distract her … all the casseroles. The coffee with just a drop of whiskey. But the cottage was her Shangri-law. And to be honest, she really didn’t feel like talking about it anymore. No one had any answers for her.

The woman had been at the church … Mandy had noticed her sitting in the mahogany-encased balcony just above her pew. Wearing that black hat with the netting that had covered her face. As if a hat would have made her unrecognizable to me, she thought. Like the time at the city market just a month ago when the same woman had approached Mandy squeezing hot house tomatoes to test their ripeness, feeling super itchy in her new blond wig. Mandy had offered the woman a distracted sideways smile, wanting only to rip off the wig and scratch her itchy head. Not paying too much attention to anyone. “Excuse me, am I in your way?” Mandy had asked the woman as kindly as she could despite her gritted teeth and thinking only if she could scratch that one spot. But she felt the woman’s intensity, like harsh sunlight beating through a closed window. When she turned to look at the woman, who was well within her personal space, Mandy had a faint recollection of her, unaware that this woman was, and had been, checking her out ... As she had done at Mandy’s public library while she was browsing the stacks. That time at Mandy’s husband’s promotion party when she’d turned to Mandy just before she’d given Jeff that congratulatory kiss on the cheek, the woman’s cheeks as flushed as the goblet of red wine she was holding. Her crimson dress. Mandy shudders to think that the woman’s glance was possessive, yet now, sadly, she realizes it was. She suddenly remembers all these seemingly unordinary glimpses of this woman. Only after the unthinkable had happened. Her husband’s death.

The woman in the netted hat had been inconsolable at Mandy’s husband’s gravesite, accepting a rose from a pallbearer. But instead of throwing the rose on top of the casket as all the others had done, she’d left with the flower clutched to her heart, sobbing so loudly, that several of Mandy’s friends and family had turned in confusion to watch the woman in the hat escape to her car. Who was this woman? What did she mean to Jeff? they all seemed to wonder. This unleashed a sob so wretched from Mandy, it sounded inhuman. With expressions akin to horror, Mandy’s friends, Judy and John, ran over and encircled their friend in a compassionate hug. Shhh, they’d murmured in Mandy’s ear, and Judy’s salty tears had soaked Mandy’s face so wet that Mandy could taste Judy’s sorrow. “I’m so sorry, Mandy,” she’d moaned, stroking Mandy’s new acrylic hair. But phew, just pounded in Mandy’s brain like a drum as she’d hugged her friend back. She was so embarrassed by the intrusion of this woman at her husband’s funeral. Why hadn’t Mandy been enough for Jeff? Probably because Mandy had just been one big burden lately.

At least it’s over. This thought stunned Mandy as she watched her husband’s supposed lover flee in her cherry-colored Jeep. Look at that—a fun car—was her only illogical and bitter thought. She couldn’t consider the intensity of the woman’s relationship with her husband at the very moment she was trying to mourn his death with dignity, the best way she knew how.

Dignity. Humpf. What was that, anyway? Dignity. After the funeral, back at the Manhattan townhouse, in her confused state of mind, handing out drinks in a fog, Irish music playing on Pandora in her husband’s honor, she saw her. She was standing in front of one of the numerous framed photographs she’d displayed all around the room, of Jeff, with his crooked but dashing smile, black wavy hair, and that untamed curl at his forehead, which meant the photograph was taken on a weekend when he didn’t use gel.

Stunned in place, unable to move, Mandy watched the woman turn away from the photograph, crying but smiling, peer around the room in curiosity, then walk over to the foyer. The woman had discarded her black netted hat and was lovely. She had a perfect creamy white complexion and no freckles like Mandy’s. Mandy swallowed hard and despite her trembling legs, followed her into the hallway clutching a tray of seafood canapés in time to see that one of the woman’s black spiked heels had hit the first cherry stair tread to the upper level of their townhouse. And as the woman climbed the stairs to the sanctity of the place that held Mandy and Jeff’s master bedroom, Jeff’s private study and Mandy’s art studio, she dropped the tray of seafood canapés with a reverberating clank of stainless steel on parquet floors so loud that it resulted in a gang of guests running to the foyer as she turned around and stared at Mandy, shocked and immobile, flushed crimson once again.

Dignity, was there any? The question reverberated in Mandy’s head. And despite the commotion of the guests scrambling to retrieve the canapé crumbs and put them back onto the tray with crawling crumby fingers, Mandy saw the woman escape out her lovely front door. The one crowned with the leaded glass window that resembled a spider web. Fitting for the black mistress widow that had just crept away unnoticed from her home, by everyone but Mandy, despite the sudden bleating of the horns out on Park Avenue, when the woman opened and then slammed the door closed behind her, and it got quiet, like some