“Initials In The Dust”

They weren’t supposed to be married. She was engaged to his brother Paul, which was why George barely knew anything about her. It was out of respect for his brother. He knew how men were around their women. How possessive they could be. So they’d never said more than two words to each other before they were walking down the aisle together during the hottest summer day in 1942.

“I don’t even know her middle name,” he said to his mother as she fixed his bowtie. The ceremony wasn’t for another hour and he was already sweating. “How can you marry someone and not even know their middle name?”

His mother gave a sage smile. She took his face in her tired hands and waited for his eyes to focus. “My dearest George,” she whispered. “You cannot know everything about someone before you marry them.” She took his shoulders and shook him gently. “You have the rest of your life to learn everything you want about her.”

“How can this be what she wants?” he protested. “This isn’t how it’s supposed to be!”

George’s breathing became shallow. A string of sweat rolled down his temple. He knew what mother was going to say. That life never goes according to plan. Instead, she smiled again and allowed the kiss on his cheek to say what she couldn’t, patiently waiting for him to calm down.

“All she wants,” she salved, patting his chest. “Is to marry a good man.”

George wasn’t so sure. Rumor was, his bride to be was “a bit of a wildcard.” He overheard the girl’s mother gossiping one afternoon while she was over for tea. Even Paul told him about all their late night escapades together on the Atlantic City boardwalk. Sneaking out, smoking cigarettes and sharing a flask of bootleg whiskey under the planks, away from the lights and the prying eyes. She wanted to see the cabaret. Paul bragged about kissing her at the end of the pier.

“And it’s Ellen, dear,” his mother said, breaking into his thoughts. “Her middle name is Ellen.”

Mary Ellen. Her name had poetry. Angels could be named Mary Ellen for all he knew. She was a mystery to him. Both terrifying and enchanting at once.

“She could have any guy she wanted. How could she want me?” He sat down abruptly on a chair. The collar on his shirt nearly swallowed his chin. “It’s not like I asked her!”

He wasn’t even sure if his brother asked her, or if their parents simply conjured the match.

“Don’t be silly. You look dashing dear.” She swiftly fixed his collar. “You’re so handsome in this tuxedo.”

He didn’t look dashing. He looked lumpy. The suit was meant for his taller and more handsome older brother. His ears were too big. His eyes, too small. “You have to say that,” he sighed. “You’re my mother.”

She didn’t have the heart to explain it all to him again. This wasn’t about him. This was about a promise made between two families. His brother promised to take care of Mary Ellen, to have and to hold, and since that was now impossible, it was his family’s responsibility to find a suitable replacement if only to maintain the poor girl’s dignity. Though, he felt ‘suitable’ was an overstatement. And being a replacement in something as difficult as marriage didn’t sound very appealing either.

There was nothing to be done. After all, investments had been purchased. There was a house along the shore the new couple were to take. Mary Ellen’s father could no longer bear the financial burden of feeding and clothing her. With eight more siblings behind her, the man was desperately trying to shuffle her off to any decent family with eligible adolescent offspring. Besides, this was a tradition dating back centuries before their ancestors came to America. Even before they’d been baptized and became good Catholic people. This was one of those unwritten laws of their ancestor’s culture. If the groom dies, the brother takes his place. It’s the polite thing to do. Because when there’s a death, we’re all of us, looking to create life.

It was the annual family trip to Cuba that caused the chain of events which put George in this position. Paul fell asleep outside in a hammock under the stars. He claimed it was the best night’s sleep of his life, despite all the mosquito bites. The fever came on suddenly while sailing home. Paul didn’t make it back. It was too late. Mary Ellen never got to say goodbye.

The lump in his throat ballooned in size as she stepped down the aisle of crushed roses. Laced in white ribbons and pearls. Breathtaking as a description was an offense to our language. Her beauty was both stifling and a zephyr. Radiance casting shadows. That New Jersey summer air became warmer by several degrees as she neared him. She was the sun. She was gravity. George would never again be in the company such grace but for her.

He kept swallowing to relieve the pressure. She was crying softly. This was supposed to be Paul standing here. She knows it. Everyone else knows it too.

They do…

They moved into a cottage on the beach. Their wedding present. A joint dowry from his and hers, furnished with all his brother’s old possessions. The house was a museum for Paul. A place his parents could dump all the memories of their first born to ease their pain. Worst of all, his brother’s old piano. A centerpiece for their family during the holidays. Paul was the only one who could play.

The first month, the couple barely spoke. George felt like a stranger in his own home. He slept on a hammock on the porch. She’d thrown his brother’s bed on the beach and burned it. Some of that wild streak Mary Ellen’s mother talked about was her daughter’s indifference to housework. It wasn’t until after they’d married that the old woman remarked, “She was too pretty for any of that.”

This all came as a bit of a surprise to George. Women were still mysterious to him, even though he was now married to one. Now that sense of mystery was being overcome with absolute confusion. He was under the impression that women simply came equipped with the knowledge of how to keep a house. As though these were inherent traits of the fairer sex. Raising children. Riding a bicycle. It was all relative. Right? It’s not like there were jobs out there for a married woman. There was a depression on. Not unless you wanted to volunteer to make bandages for the troops.

George wasn’t sure what Mary Ellen did all day while he was at work. He often dreamed of what she might get up to on the long commute home. The train from the city seemed to be getting slower and slower these days. He found himself becoming more impatient with delays, always ready to come home at the end of a long day. To see her. Even if the silences were long and their affections short. He took pride that she was his responsibility now. That taking care of her was what his brother would’ve wanted him to do. When he bought her a new bed, and spent all afternoon setting it up, making sure every piece of the frame was locked together tight, that night, she invited him in off the porch. When he smiled, she blushed and said she didn’t want him to get hurt in the hammock. He kissed her to spare her from saying more.

He often found her on the porch looking at the waves when he arrived home. Always with a drink waiting. Whiskey if he was early. Coffee if he was late. He’d nod his head and sit with her on the porch. They might not speak for hours before she asked about his day. It was their way. He never knew how to ask her how she occupied her time.

It had been two months now and everything in the house was covered in a fine mist of dust. Simply walking through the house stirred up a small cloud. Every time he was about to ask about her day, he felt the question would sound accusing. So they avoided the subject.

Dinner was never made either. The poor woman was helpless in the kitchen. Her specialties were burnt, blackened, or raw. She ruined more cookware than made edible dishes. Many of her favorite dresses were now ruined. He’s pretty sure she even burned the cookbook her mother gave her as a joke, saying, “At least she can read.”

He began contemplating hiring a housekeeper to cook and clean, but wasn’t sure if that would offend her either, or if they could afford it. So they avoided the subject.

“Talk to your wife,” his mother said after visiting one day to see the house is disarray. “Find out what is wrong.”

“I’m not even sure if she loves me,” he worried.

“Nonsense,” his mother scolded. “Marriage is a shared experience, not a bunch of words. You only need to find your love’s language.”

George knew she was right even if he didn’t know what she meant.

The next day he called in to work and spent the morning with her in bed. They slept late. Waiting for the sun to become too bright to bear before going downstairs to make coffee. After breakfast, he began cleaning the house. He started by writing I love Mary Ellen in the dust on Paul’s old piano. With the sun shining through the curtains, he threw them back and opened the windows to the sea breeze. A warm light filled the house. She came alive after that. Without having to say a word, they both picked up a rag and cleaned the entire house the rest of the day without stopping for a break. Before long, they found themselves talking about everything they’d been avoiding, from their childhoods to their awkward wedding. They talked about it all. About nothing. He was sure he loved her, yet her love was still a hope for him.

That night they cooked dinner together. She chopped vegetables and poured the beer while he seasoned the steaks. They grilled the whole thing over a fire they built together on the beach and fell asleep in each other’s arms on a blanket under the moon.

The next day he was back to work, and when he came home, she was in her usual spot on the porch with his glass of whiskey. The house hadn’t been cleaned but it didn’t need to be. They spent so much time on it the day before it would stay clean for weeks. Another month went by though, and the dust settled again.

The guys at work all bragged about their wives. How they came home to spotless houses and pacified children and three course meals. Their spouses seem like pinups with plastic personalities.

His wife might not be what the world thought was ideal. But he loved her more for it. Though, he was sure that if she truly loved him, she would help him out around the house more often. He couldn’t help but feel selfish, though. Was that what marriage was supposed to be? He worked and she took care of the house? Another unwritten law of culture and gender. Those same expectations pushed him to marry his brother’s bride. Why didn’t it apply here too?

If something about that idea was supposed to make him happy, it didn’t. It only confused him more.

He knew he had to talk to her, but he didn’t know how. His own wife, and he still wasn’t sure how to start the conversation. It came so easily when they were working on something with each other. He never felt so close as when they cooked together.

That was the answer. He was expecting her to love him in a way she didn’t know how. A way she was timid to learn. Something she was afraid to mess up. Explaining, she didn’t clean because she was afraid of ruining the house permanently. And she was afraid to cook because she was convinced she was going to burn the house down. Either way, she thought he would never forgive her. That he might send her away even if it were an accident.

So to start the conversation, he cleaned a little. He went over and traced her initials in the piano top and went outside for some fresh air. When he came back inside an hour later, he found she had cleaned a little as well. And there on the piano was her reply. She’d traced his initials under her own, encircled by a heart in the dust.

Editing: Dispense the Word (Just)ice and Other Offenses A Creative Writing Article

For the rest of your life, no matter what you’re writing, you’re not allowed to use the word JUST, ever again. This is going to be tough for some, but you’ll thank me later.

We’re not talking about the adjective: Just – what is morally/ethically correct. What we’re after is the scourge of sentences. The part of speech that chops the legs and wings off your poetic prose – the adverb. Nothing makes me want to practice my paper ball jump shot into the recycling bin more than the nondescript use of the word just. While you’re at it, stop using LIKE as an adverb as well – it’s a verb, and a boring one to boot. It makes your narrator sound as though they have misgivings about their own like… opinions. We can also throw REALLY in there too if you want to go wild. By wild we mean intelligent.

From now on, just and like and really, these are your new ‘four-letter’ words. Using them shall henceforth be a word crime, punishable by a sudden lack of regard for your intelligence, and as warned earlier, the possibility of the work’s spontaneous recycling. Yet, as with any law of the English language, there are some loopholes and special circumstances, however rare, when just is just as acceptable, though probably still not justified.

To understand this, first we have to establish some ground rules. In a 2014 article, Steven King wrote, “Adverbs are killers.”

He’s right because he’s more successful than both of us will ever be. Also because you never need to add an adverb to a sentence unless the message you’re conveying isn’t clear enough without the extra word. That’s right, adverbs should be considered extra words, and if you begin to think of them this way, then you’ll never overuse them. Especially when there are plenty of ways to rewrite a sentence without relying on one to prop up your prose.

Take this example – we have a husband and wife, and the husband says lovingly to his wife, “I’ll never let you go.”

The reader will assume that he’s saying it lovingly if you’ve established them as being in love. We don’t need the word unless he’s not. If instead he’s doing something unexpected, we’ve now revealed him to be the killer that somehow murdered his wife’s entire family without her noticing, (shut up and go with it) then we need to change that lovingly into a menacingly. Otherwise he’s just confusing. See, isn’t that annoying?

Adverbs have the power to gut your sentence and leave it bleeding on the floor alongside all those rejection letters they keep sending you, so lets figure out how to be more specific when there isn’t a way to get rid of the word entirely. One of the final parts of your editing process needs to focus on chopping every unnecessary adverb or changing every necessary adverb to the most specific one available. So when it comes to the word just, we have a few options. First, try tossing the word out, but if you need something there, try using simply or only instead. And if those don’t work, you can always try fucking. Obviously, the latter of the choices is the boldest, but hey, you’re a sophisticated individual. It’s clear you know great writing when you read it. Why else would you still be reading this?

Besides, who doesn’t like a well placed fuck? Nobody, that’s who.

When you find it impossible to cut the word out, instead of just, try using simply when something or someone is being simple or obtuse. “He just doesn’t want to know.” Becomes, “He simply doesn’t want to know.”

Use only when there is one possible outcome, only. “He just wants to know.” Becomes, “He only wants to know.”

Use fucking if you want to sound angry. “Won’t you just shut up?” Becomes, “Won’t you fucking shut up?” Or even better, “Won’t you shut-the-fuck-up?”

Here are some hard and fast never-evers:
Never use it in third person point-of-view when writing exposition. That’s just lazy. Or in this case, unnecessary. It is possible to use it effectively in first person since you’re trying to create a voice; however, there’s a certain informal tone that comes with using the word that lacks authority (narrator knowledge). A compelling voice with authority has to be established in order for the reader to buy into the story without questioning the validity. People don’t listen to tales told by someone who isn’t sure about all their facts. We automatically assume they’re embellishing or making something up when the point of great fiction is to make the reader forget it isn’t real.

Keep it out of exposition entirely, unless you’re trying to establish a first person narrator with a limited vocabulary, in which case, you risk making your story sound repetitive. Meaning, you’re going to have a hard time selling a story that reads as though it’s written by a nitwit unless there’s some other indication in the work that shows how you, the author, are doing that on purpose. Something challenging to sustain with a larger work but not impossible if you’re willing to work hard enough on establishing your narrator’s authority.

For an example of this type of voice in a short story, check out “Melody” by Michael DeVito, Jr. in the Burnt Tongues collection of transgressive short stories. Every other story in that collection is also a great example of establishing authority through narrator knowledge.

This leaves your only real option for using the word in dialogue. Though again, there are plenty of opportunities to use something more specific. However, there’s something fantastically sarcastic about a character saying, “That’s just great.” Want sarcasm with a little anger? “That’s fucking great.” Boom. That was your mind exploding.

As for using the word like appropriately as an adverb, in those cases, most likely you’re using it to create a simile. That’s fine, but keep in mind that a metaphor would be preferable because it has more authority. It’s more direct. When it comes to storytelling, less is always more on the word count and even more so today. We don’t have the attention span. If any word is not completely necessary, then it must go. See Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory” for more on the idea of allowing the reader to figure out the things you don’t have to say. There’s also a scene in the movie Big Fish between the father and son when they ironically talk about this theory indirectly.

As for really, well I doubt we really even need to get into that.

For an example of using similes effectively, see the work of Gillian Flynn. She wrote Gone Girl and Dark Places, and often uses similes to describe nouns more effectively and with more imagery than a simple adjective could’ve conveyed. Though I’ve sometimes thought she might overuse this technique, no one can deny how gripping her novels are, so it’s easy to forgive this tendency. Plus, when establishing similes as a device a first person narrator uses to describe other people, it makes sense to continue using the technique because it becomes a part of their tendencies. But you’re probably not Gillian Flynn unfortunately, which is why finding a more compelling technique to use is in our best interest. (If you are her, marry me?)

For work that’s lacking adverbs, check out nearly any best-selling contemporary author. They understand the killing power of the nondescript adverb. Writers like Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club, Choke) and Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho, Rules of Attraction) are two writers in particular with an amazing gift for the well placed adverb or lack thereof.

Now comes the tears. Take out all those old stories you’ve been trying to sell for the past year and use the search option (Command F) to look for these new dirty words. Get rid of them when possible or change them if not, and if that doesn’t work, then maybe you’ve found an exception. The truth is that the words wouldn’t exist unless they had some use. Remember, never use just in exposition if at all possible unless establishing tone in first person point of view. Dialogue is fine, but try to use something more specific like simply or only. Whatever you do, just don’t overuse them.

“Expensive Sitting” A Memoir

I never understood why Dad always insisted on taking me fishing. We never caught a thing other than some summer storms, a few head colds, and some flack from Mom about getting sunburned. The man had to be the worst fisherman in the history of history, and we worked together about as well as salt and iron. We never shared that perfect picture moment: One of us hooking the big one, helping the other fight it close to the boat where one would dip the hand net into the water to lift the whopper out and into the boat where the other could give the sea monster a whack on the head before wrestling it into the cooler. Someone would snap a picture of us at the docks hoisting the creature on a trophy hook where the whole town would admire the fact that we rid the ocean of this beast that surely would’ve eaten everyone’s children whole — especially the cute ones.

Our fishing trips were the complete opposite. Typically, they went like this: Dad wakes up before sunrise on a weekend, or more commonly known to teenagers as ‘What the hell is wrong with you?’ o’clock. Pack the boat with more fishing gear than a dozen men could use in a week. Fill up the boat with gas at the marina and back it into the water. Drive an hour to some random spot in the middle of the ocean where Dad would proclaim this was our new, “secret spot.” Sit and bake in the hot Florida sun until we looked like a pair of red hots. Catch nothing. Talk about nothing. Then I start complaining about all of the above until Dad gets angry and drives back to the docks to do everything in reverse order. Then, once we’ve wasted an entire day, we still have to scrub the damn boat. Joy.

We never even had any fish stories about the one who got away because we always came home grumpy, sunburned, empty handed, and too tired to think up a story. Besides, calling what we did fishing was an insult to anyone who makes a living off the trade. What we were doing amounted to expensive sitting.

There were times when I would catch something, but we usually threw it back for being too small or the only thing we caught. Dad was always trying out the latest and greatest lures and baits. Nothing worked. Not even that expensive GPS fish finder Mom bought one Christmas because she was tired of driving the store to buy fish when we lived at the beach. When she started keeping fish in the freezer, Dad started blaming her for us not catching anything since the universe knew we had fish waiting on us at home, which became a running joke. We needed an excuse to laugh at our luck, or lack thereof. At the time I thought Dad must’ve been holding on to some bad juju or maybe he pissed in Poseidon’s fish flakes one too many times. When I went fishing with friends, we always caught at least a few. But when it was me and Dad, he nearly never caught a thing, and on the rare occasion I’d hook something, he’d smile and say, “You got lucky. Now do it again.”

Fishing and life have given me the same amount of luck. Whenever I needed a fish or a lucky break, I caught one. There were so many times when I could’ve caused a lot of damage or should’ve been in serious trouble for doing something stupid boys do. I never meant any harm by any of my antics, but that doesn’t mean no one ever got hurt. Still, for some strange reason, the universe smiled. Learning lessons is tough when you don’t get caught. Dad wasn’t into lessons either. He didn’t do what my mother considered parenting. Though I disagree. For him it was simple, he thought there wasn’t anything I couldn’t figure out on my own. Which is flattering, however naive. Dad claimed I was, “Too smart for him to understand.” That certainly wasn’t true. Growing up in a school with a well-funded gifted program gave me the ability to think abstractly, which to Dad, didn’t make any sense because he was so logical. Spock to my Captain Kirk conclusions. When I was four, my mother told me that for a time I became obsessed with overpopulation and the nation’s rapid consumption of precious resources. As if this is a viable fear for a child living in the economic boom of the mid-eighties. Looking back, maybe I should’ve been more worried about cooties. They were more of a threat back then anyway.

Whether it was sanding a door, changing oil, or baiting a hook, dad would hand over the tools (not always the right ones), and say, “Deal with it.” Then he’d patiently watch and laugh to himself as I got frustrated enough to break something. He’s definitely not the reason I became a teacher, though I’ve realized I do the exact thing to my students sometimes and laugh about it as they throw a tantrum. For him, there was always one lesson to be learned in every endeavor that took the longest to stick — patience. And I still haven’t learned it.

Dad and I didn’t spend a lot of time together because he was always so busy running his business, making sure we were all well fed, clothed, and sheltered. Completely spoiled compared to what he had growing up. It wasn’t until I decided to write about the experience that I realized he was simply trying to spend some time with me. Hoping to have one of those father-son talks he’d seen on TV. He only didn’t know how to start the conversation. What questions to ask. He had no idea what parents talked about with their kids. His parents never had a relationship with him other than fleecing and beating him before kicking him out at fourteen. The only talking they ever did to him never amounted to more than verbal abuse. In another fourteen years he worked his was up from an auto body repair apprentice to owning a successful small business.

Grandma treated me much the same way when I was growing up as she did my father. The only attention she gave were short bursts of violence. Yet there’s still one happy memory I have with her. The time she took my uncle and I to a catfish pond in Georgia where I hooked one on my first cast without any bait on the hook to which Grandma said, “You got lucky. Now do it again.”
Mom later told me this was the one thing Dad enjoyed doing with Grandma as a child too. It was the closest thing to parenting she knew. Happy Father’s Day Pop. Sorry I was too much of an impatient brat to see that you loved me in your own way, but I’ve always had a hard time seeing what’s in front of me. That’s probably Mom’s fault too.