Travel

All posts in the Travel category

On going back and forth.

Published August 7, 2019 by mandileighbean

I feel like this summer has mostly been a disappointment. This is mostly my own fault for being lazy and creating grandiose expectations to which no mortal, or season, could live up to. Then again, I reason I shouldn’t be so hard on myself because “summertime sadness” is more than just a popular song. It’s a real thing and I’ve decided the best way to combat it is to be productive and to always keep moving forward.

I wish someone would tell my subconscious. I keep having dreams that are mostly ominous.

For example, the night before last, I had a dream (that I can only piece together in vague shades as it rapidly faded in the ways that dreams do) where I was being chased throughout my childhood home and into its backyard by a tyrannical T-Rex who roared and roared out orders. My family and friends were warning me not to run, feared I would make things worse, but eventually everyone started running with me. And apparently, dreaming of dinosaurs indicates that it’s time for the dreamer to put things behind her and she symbolizes she is stuck in a situation holding her back. Well, that makes perfect sense to me; this is the first summer in six that I haven’t been rushing to my cell phone, hoping and praying for a text message, that I haven’t invented reasons to reach out, only to end up disappointed and ashamed. It’s hard to move on from someone who embodied all your future happiness (or so you thought) but it’s good when that someone is only narcissistic and manipulative.

But then my dream shifted and I was in the room I was sleeping in and unable to turn the lights on. They would flicker dimly and turn off no matter how many times I flicked the switch. To dream of lights that do not work as they should could represent a lack of insight, and could also mean the dreamer is unable to feel that safety is under her control. I don’t feel I’m in any kind of danger, but I most certainly understand the lack of insight; I never know what the hell I’m doing. And studying in Ireland is something I want to do and am afraid to do. It’s much easier to stay exactly where I am, after all.

But then my dream shifted again; I was driving over low bridges over water in Florida while I was panicking because I was late for work in New Jersey. This apparently symbolizes that an important decision must be made because the dreamer is at a critical junction in her life and might have to defend herself against others in her decision to grab an opportunity. Well, holy shit; Ireland it is.

But when I went to the high school where I teach to help with a fundraiser for the Executive Board of the Student Government Association, which I co-advise, I brought up the idea of taking a sabbatical to study in Ireland to my principal, whom I love and admire. And he told me no. He said I was too valuable, which is nice to hear, but he wouldn’t even entertain the conversation. I don’t think he’d actually deny me and I’m flattered by his sentiment, but I want to go. I want to study in Limerick for a year.

Later that night, I had a dream I witnessed a horrible, horrifying car accident, which is a very bad omen. But today, I received an email from Professor Joseph O’Connor from the University of Limerick. He sent me information about the Creative Writing program. I’d have to apply, offer up 3,000 words of original work to be judged. That’s terrifying; what if they say no? What if I’m not good enough? I’m sure I’d be accepted for continuing studying literature, but to be told no is still daunting.

I’m printing out a lame picture from the internet that looks like this:what-if-i-fall-oh-but-my-darling-what-if-44300870

Guess it’s time for me to soar. I’m going to request a phone appointment with the woman from the University of Limerick in charge of international students.

On adventures, especially the small ones.

Published July 3, 2019 by mandileighbean

ulfrankmccourt

I didn’t write a single entry for the month of June. I had drafts, but I never published a single entry. June was a rough, tough month for me; the end of the school year is always a hectic time, and there were financial and personal woes that kept me distracted, but the adventure – albeit a small one – I was psyching myself up for at the end of the month was a real blessing and a real game changer. Essentially, I’m saying that I’m glad I held off so I could post a love letter to The University of Limerick/Frank McCourt Creative Writing Summer School. It’s been about a year since I left a writing conference brimming with such admiration and inspiration and affection, and I’m excited to tell you all about it.

I attended the conference with a colleague who was my former English teacher and is now a very good friend. We headed into New York City during the later hours of Thursday morning. We checked into our hotel and spruced ourselves up before heading to an exclusive, invitation only reception at the Irish Consulate. I can’t remember feeling as privileged and elegant as I did that night. On the seventeenth floor of an intimidating building on Park Avenue, we were treated to passed hors d’oeuvres and wine and the wonderful joviality that seems to be exclusive to the Irish. Ellen and Malachy McCourt were present, relations of the Irish writer Frank McCourt, in whose honor the Summer School was started. Frank McCourt and his book Angela’s Ashes hold very special places in my heart because his book was the very first, and perhaps the only book, I remember my entire family reading. I’m talking my grandparents, my parents, my siblings, my aunts, and my uncles, and maybe even some cousins. Discussing that book with my extended family is one of my most cherished literary and familial memories, so to be in that elegant room with windows overlooking Park Avenue and rubbing elbows with the Irish literary scene was surreal.

The school really kicked off on Friday afternoon, where all attending gathered at the Glucksman Ireland House for registration and orientation. We were split up into three seminar groups (A, B, and C) and each group took each Core Workshop. My colleague and I had the good fortune of being in the same group, group C. But before we split up, we all remained in the main lecture room for an introduction that outlined the aims of the weekend, and for a lecture by Professor Sarah Moore Fitzgerald that included writing exercises and covered self-motivation, plot, structure, and story.

sarah-moore-fitzgerald-407653063 Professor Sarah Moore Fitzgerald was an incredibly warm, energetic and passionate woman. She was an absolute joy to learn from. She told us all that “There really is no expertise … everyone comes to the blank page” and that blank page is a “real leveler.” The inclusive atmosphere she created was crucial to establishing the camaraderie that gradually built over the weekend between the attendees and the faculty. Her knowledge and encouragement will stay with me for a long time. Her author profile is here, on her publisher’s website.

After Professor Sarah Moore Fitzgerald’s lecture, my group and I traveled down a short, creaky staircase for our first Core Workshop: All We Shall Know: Short Stories to Novels, led by Professor Donal Ryan.

donalryan Professor Donal Ryan was just … cool. He put us all at ease with his humor but simultaneously managed to keep us all on our toes with his wit and insight into the creative process. He was honest and open and completely generous. He really drove home the point that the best kind of stories are character driven and beautiful in their simplicity, meaning just tell the story you want to tell. He played songs that captured this idea and pointed out how they did it in just a couple of verses and a chorus. He said, “Infinity is there for us as writers” because anyone can write about absolutely anything, and that can be overwhelming. So the key is to keep it simple: read and write to hone your craft, and to be almost mathematical about plot, pacing, and structure to sort of rein yourself in and not succumb to “the oppression of infinity.” Professor Donal Ryan’s author profile can be found here, on his publisher’s website. And this is a link to a wonderful article about Donal Ryan, which really captures the spirit of his approach to writing.

I was on cloud nine leaving the building after the first day, and things were only made better by having a delicious dinner at “Eataly.” The writer’s life is definitely the life for me, and I am forever indebted to my colleague for bringing this experience to my attention. I feel like a different person, and I feel like a better writer.

Saturday was a full day: we started earlier and ended later. We began again as a large group with Professor Sarah Moore Fitzgerald discussing plot, the importance of conflict in the plot, and she shared intimate details of her process as a writer of books for young adults. Again, she was passionate and vibrant and full of knowledge. I filled pages and pages of my notebook with notes; amazing.

After the main lecture, my group shuffled over to the second Core Workshop in the seminar room just inside the front door of the house. The workshop was titled Poetry in the House of Prose, and it was led by Dr. Martin Dyar.

M-Dyar-by-Fran-Marshall-1-960x675 Learning from Dr. Martin Dyar was an incredible experience, so much so that I find it difficult to put into words the transformative magic that occurred within the room as he spoke. Before the workshop, we were to read “The Swimmer” by John Cheever and a collection of poems curated by Dr. Dyar. He explored the connection between narrative writing and poetry with examples, and spoke so eloquently about the importance of both and how using them in tandem makes the beauty of the written word and of abstract thought more accessible to the reader. Like Professor Dolan Ryan, he talked about compression and how with writing, and especially with poetry, less is often more. I annotated all over the poem we focused on and was inspired not only as a writer, but as a teacher. His workshop was so important on so many different levels, and it’s always wonderful to talk with brilliant people, and he is absolutely brilliant. Dr. Martin Dyar’s profile and brief biography are featured on the Poetry Foundation’s website.

We broke for a quick lunch. I had ice cream. What an amazing, incredible day! And I was only halfway through it.

After lunch, my group had our final Core Workshop with Dr. Kerry Neville, titled Writing Memoir and Longer Fiction.

kerryneville Dr. Kerry Neville was beautiful and honest and brave and vulnerable, and just an artist in full. She had us write a story about ourselves to introduce ourselves and really demonstrated the magic in a good story and what it can do to create an understanding and a sense of community between people, specifically between an author and her readers. She really emphasized the point that no matter what you write, it’s your job to get it right, to give the story the dignity it deserves. Dr. Kerry Neville also had us bring in important photographs and write a sentence or two about why there were so important to us. I had a picture of my maternal grandparents celebrating St. Patrick’s Day some years ago, and I wrote about the connection between them and Frank McCourt and sharing literary aspirations with my grandfather. I was honored and blessed to have the moment to give credit to Grandpa, who left us far too soon and was always so supportive. I like to think that he would be proud and we would have been incredibly close as I got older. And I owe Dr. Kerry Neville for sharing her knowledge and passion, and for allowing me a platform to do the same. She is a wonderful woman. Dr. Kerry Neville’s website is here.

We ended the day at the Swift Hibernian Lounge, where we were treated to an intimate concert with Pierce Turner.

Pierce-on-puck-fair-counter WOW. What a performance. What an experience. Pierce Turner’s lyrics were poignantly beautiful and incredibly intelligent. As I sat beside an Irish filmmaker, across from a woman who had studied at the University of Limerick for a year, and next to my colleague, I was perfectly in love with my life. It was amazing and wonderful, and I – again! – am struggling to find the right combinations of words to do the magic of the evening any sort of justice. It was actually as close to perfect as I think an evening can get. Pierce Turner’s official website is here. And this is my favorite song that he played that evening.

Sunday was our last day, and it was bittersweet. New York City always exhausts me and while I was excited to unwind at home, I knew I had been a part of something truly great and I would miss it dearly. I miss it right now.

Our last day started with an awesome lecture by Professor Eoin Devereux, called Waltzing Back: The Cranberries’ “Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?”

eoindevereux The lecture was awesome. Professor Eoin Devereux was passionate and knowledgeable, but managed to make everything so accessible. Professor Joseph O’Connor kept calling him a Renaissance Man, and it’s true; he was a treat to listen to and my only regret is that his lecture wasn’t longer. Professor Eoin Devereux’s impressive faculty page is here.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the importance of The Cranberries in my life. When I was a miserable teenager hell bent upon making my mother’s life more miserable than it needed to be, when her and I were at our worst, we could somehow manage to sit together and still share a love of music, particularly that of The Cranberries. My mother introduced me to Dolores O’Riordan’s haunting voice and stunning lyrics, and she played for me her favorite songs.  There’d been several signs from the universe indicating I was right where I was supposed to be, and Professor Eoin Devereux’s informative and entertaining lecture was definitely one of them.

The conference ended at McSorley’s Old Alehouse with a simple brunch. Each of the faculty members read a little something they had prepared and after some merriment muted by the knowledge it was the end, we parted ways. McSorley’s was the perfect establishment for the send off; rich in history and with stories of its own. One of my closest friends in college (whom I named one of my characters after in my novel) worked there for a long time, and her family still owns and operates it. I reached out to her and we reconnected briefly and everything just felt right.

It’d be a horrible, terrible mistake if I didn’t acknowledge Professor Joseph O’Connor, the man who led the way and endeavored to put the whole conference together.

profoconnor His humor and warmth and knowledge set the tone for the whole weekend. He was incredibly gracious and kind, and remarkably talented, and inspiring. Professor Joseph O’Connor’s author website is here.

He spoke about the possibility of studying at the University of Limerick, and encouraged us to reach out to him if we were interested. So I did.

I guess what this whole post has been leading up to is the revelation I came to: I want to study for a year in Ireland. I want to live and write there for a year. And I’ve begun planning to do so.

I’ll keep you updated, as always.

On obligatory new year resolutions and the value of introspection.

Published January 4, 2018 by mandileighbean

MAN_ON_A_LISBON_BUS

Hypocrisy, in my opinion, is one of the worst human flaws. I understand this sentiment is ironic because just about a year ago, I wrote a post which discussed hitting rock bottom and how I was going to change myself into the woman I have the potential of being, the woman I so desperately want to be. However, the year came and went and nothing changed. If anything, I got worse; the weight has ballooned into an unhealthy, unattractive number; creative writing has all but ceased; I still spend more nights than I care to admit to publically eating bad food and re-watching romantic comedies at home … alone.

But recently, I was forced to think about the last five years of my life. With the clarity hindsight provides, I was able to understand that I had been through several tumultuous periods and had tried to blindly just trudge ahead. The spirit is commendable, but in doing so, I developed many unhealthy coping mechanisms that have since cost me my health and happiness and, to a point, my sanity.

So that is my resolution for 2018: to get back to good, and to take my life back. To do that, I am going to spend more time doing what I love. I’ll read more and I will update this blog once a week (every Wednesday for Writer Wednesday … get it? I’m a sucker for alliteration). Granted they start on a Thursday this week, but I had snowmageddon to contend with. And would it really be me if I did something right the first time around?

I will progress my literary career in 2018.

I will start taking classes for my Masters degree.

I will diet and exercise and the goal is to lose at least 30 pounds by May 16th (when I see Bruce Springsteen on Broadway!). I want to go hiking at least once a month and really spend more time in nature. This, plus starting therapy, will help me regain mental health and stability.

I will begin making improvements to my home to make it cozier and to become more independent.

Putting all this in writing helps me to formulate a plan and in my attempt to avoid hypocrisy at all costs, helps me to stick to these resolutions.

And now for some creative writing; stay golden, readers. And be excellent to each other.

WRITING PROMPT #01.2018: After falling asleep on a twenty-hour bus ride to his mother’s house, a college student wakes up to discover that he’s been on the wrong bus the entire time.

I stood in the bus station, looking out at a deserted Main Street that was slowly but surely filling with snow. The winter wind was whipping itself into a frenzy; I could feel it slipping through the door in front of me, and it was enough to make me shiver in my jeans and tee shirt. I was woefully unprepared for the wintry mix outside because I had fully anticipated waking up as the bus came to a stop in Atlanta, Georgia. Yet here I was in Liberty, Indiana.

I couldn’t understand how it happened. Obviously, I boarded the wrong bus, but how could that have happened? How could I have made such a stupid, stupid mistake? I rubbed my cheek, felt the stubble that needed to be shaved. It was bristly against my palm and helped me come back to myself. Staring out the door would do no good. I needed a plan. I needed to think of some course of action, so I walked back to the uncomfortable bench that was no more than a piece of curved steel. It was cold against my lower back, as the thin cotton of my shirt was powerless against the cold that seemed to pervade everywhere. It helped me to prioritize; I would get myself some boots, a heavy coat, some gloves, a scarf, and a hat. If I was going to be lost, I could at least be comfortable doing it.

Behind the counter was an elderly, grizzled-looking man who just wanted to get home. He watched me approach without interest, with a cold detachment that I took as a bad sign. I had heard that people in the Midwest, although weird, were incredibly friendly. This guy looked like I could have walked up to him on fire, burning alive, and he would have yawned and apathetically watched me turn to ash. I did my best to smile, and as polite as humanly possible, I said, “Good evening, sir.”

He said nothing in reply. He only blinked back at me.

I swallowed hard and pressed on. “Could you tell me where the nearest clothing store is? I didn’t know it’d be- “

“There’s the Liberty Mall right next door. You might have some luck there.”

I nodded, mumbling my thanks as I pulled the straps of my duffle bag higher up on my shoulder. He nodded in return and turned away.

I was on my own.

Outside the bus station, the cold was overwhelming. I imagined my fingers and toes turning blue, then black, then falling off. I’d leave a trail of them the cops could follow to the doors of the Liberty Mall, where they’d find me all frozen and stiff and dead.

I didn’t used to be this dramatic.

I hurried over to the mall, walking close against the sides of the buildings to avoid all snow as best as I could. I wrenched the door open against the wind that was really starting to pick up, and the first thing I saw was a little, sad-looking department store that appeared to have ignore the turn of the last century. My feeling of disorientation was growing; what time was it? Had I traveled not only in the wrong direction for twenty hours, but had I also gone back in time?  The yellow lights that burned overhead burned low, so that everything was washed in a depressing shade of yellow and looked older than it was and sickly. There was a young woman who came from around the counter and walked to the very edge of the store’s boundary. She hadn’t noticed me, and she reached high up over head. I realized she meant to close the metal gate that rolled down, so I sprinted over to her.

“Miss, please! Don’t close that gate!”

She looked at me in alarm, scrambling back a few steps and wrapping her arms around herself. I felt bad but was grateful she’d backed away from the gate. “I’m sorry, sir,” she said, “but we’re closing.” She looked at me from the sides of her eyes, turning her head mostly away from me.

“I can appreciate that, but I don’t have any winter clothes and I’ll freeze to death outside.” I stopped just inside the store. “I’m supposed to be in Atlanta. I got on the wrong bus and I have no winter clothes packed. Can I buy some clothes?”

She slightly turned her head towards me and looked me up and down. “But I’ve already shut down the register.”

“I’ll pay cash. We’ll cut the tags off and you can ring everything up first thing tomorrow.” She didn’t move. “Or you can turn it back on while I look around. Please, miss. Please … what’s your name?”

“Caroline.”

“Please, Caroline. My name’s Dillon and I just rode a bus from Philadelphia for twenty hours. I’m embarrassed, I’m cold, I’m tired, and I’m hungry. Help me fix one of those things, please.”

Caroline’s hands dropped to her sides. Her eyes were big and brown and nice to look at it now that they were no longer narrowed with suspicion. “Be quick,” she said before she turned and went behind the counter. I thanked her again and again, what seemed like a thousand times over, and she only got me to shut up by pointing me in the direction of the outer wear – first right off the main aisle. As I turned, I could see the bulky jackets crudely stuffed against one another, hanging from circular racks. I breathed a little easier and slowed my pace, figuring I could take a second to enjoy the tiny victory. I passed a t-shaped rack filled with coats for infants, the sizes ran from 0-3 months, and I came to a complete stop.

Later, when I called my mom from a bar with a steak and a mound of mashed potatoes both smothered in gravy in front of me, she harassed me, berated me until I could explain how I managed to be so stupid. What kind of jackass gets on the wrong bus? I tried the empty, obvious answers; that the bus station was crowded and overwhelmed with holiday travelers. I lied and said I was half-listening when the man who sold me my ticket talked about transfers, so I fell asleep and forgot. She wasn’t satisfied. She knew I was lying even though she couldn’t see my face in the way that only mothers can. I did the only thing I could do; I broke and told my mother the God’s honest truth about the last 48 hours.

Staring at the infant jackets reminded me of Alicia. I had met her in college, after I had gone to the north and broken my mother’s heart. Alicia was an art major who didn’t give a damn about plans or responsibilities. I was intoxicated by her freedom and her wildness, and she helped me to let my guard down and to get into a little bit of trouble. It wasn’t anything serious; no legal troubles, but a few stories to tell with a big smile. I loved her. And I’d tell her all the time. I told her I loved her constantly. She never said it back, just took me into her arms, into her bedroom, into the nearest place that offered any kind of privacy and she’d let me show her how much I loved her. I never thought much of it; I was happy and it made me stupid, I guess.

I invited Alicia home to meet my mom. She was supposed to be on the bus with me.

But she sat me down in the kitchen of her on-campus apartment and explained that she wasn’t looking for anything serious. She said going home to meet a guy’s family was pretty serious, the way having a baby was serious. Alicia usually talked in long, winding paths that eventually got to some point. And I could usually anticipate the destination of her dialogue and patiently wait for her to get there. But this time, I was confused. “Who said anything about having a baby? No one said anything about a baby.”

Alicia looked at her hands between her knees. “I didn’t want to tell you because I saw this coming. I knew you were getting caught up.”

I stood up. “Tell me what?”

“I was pregnant.”

There was a moment of stunned silence. She told me she was on the pill, so how this could have happened seemed the obvious question to ask next, but her phrasing troubled me more. “What do you mean was?”

“Don’t worry, I took care of it.”

It was hard for me to swallow. My face felt hot, but I knew I was cold all over. “What do you mean you took care of it?”

“Don’t be stupid,” Alicia said. She rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean, Dillon. Don’t make me say the obvious.”

“You didn’t tell me?”

“I knew this was going to happen,” Alicia said. “You always take things too seriously. You get too invested. You’re gonna break your heart a million times over doing that.” She went to walk past me, to leave me standing there alone. As she passed, I grabbed her nearest arm and wrenched her back. She stumbled back to stand in front of me. Her face was pale, her eyes were wide, and her breathing had quickened. She was scared but I didn’t give a shit.

“You’re a fucking bitch.”

Alicia brought her hands to her face like I slapped her, like I was bringing my hand back to do it again. I still didn’t give a shit. “I love you! We’ve been sleeping together for two years, and you don’t tell me you’re pregnant? You don’t tell me you’re gonna get rid of it? That’s fucking weird, Alicia.”

Alicia came back to herself. “It’s my body, my decision. And I don’t have to explain myself to you! Just because I don’t buy into some Judeo-Christian definition of woman-“

“Oh, fuck off! This isn’t political! This is personal!”

Alicia pushed me hard. I moved back a step or two. She wasn’t strong, but she surprised me. “Don’t you tell me to fuck off, you petulant man child! I knew you’d be hypersensitive about this. Grow up, Dillon! You’re so pathetic, I-“

I shoved her. Hard. Hard enough so she fell back onto the carpeted floor of the living room, just a few steps away. I was losing control, and an apology rose to my lips, but I kept them shut tight. I had never laid a hand on anybody my entire life. I was a father, then I wasn’t. I was a gentleman, then I wasn’t.

Alicia was this smart, beautiful firecracker I tried to keep held securely in my hand. But firecrackers explode, go off, and the result was injury.

I left her lying on the floor. Confused, depressed, and desperate, I went back to my dorm room and drank until I fell asleep. When I woke, I only had thirty minutes to pack and get to the bus station. I blindly followed the crowds onto the wrong bus, going unnoticed because of the thronging crowds of holiday travelers, and then I slept.

“Dillon? Sir? Are you finding everything okay?”

I blinked and silent tears rolled down my cheeks. Caroline had caught me hundreds of miles away, in a different time and place. She found me vulnerable, crying in an outdated department store in a small town in Indiana.

On life-changing events.

Published March 20, 2017 by mandileighbean

I know it’s been a while since the last time I wrote, which is a phrase I use much too often to begin these posts. I promised myself I would make writing a priority and I haven’t. To paraphrase William Wordsworth, the world is too much with me. I let work and friends and television and social media and solitaire and invented melodramas take up much too much of my time, but that is all changing, slowly but surely. After all, they say you need to acknowledge and admit to having a problem before you can even begin to solve it.

It is a REAL tragedy writing hasn’t moved more into the forefront of my thoughts and ambitions and desires because that conference/workshop was truly life changing. It was a whirlwind of emotions, but I left feeling validated and prepared and motivated and determined. I mustn’t lose sight of that, or it will all be for nothing.

So today, I kicked my own ass running along the Barnegat Bay (good for body and soul) and am sitting down to properly update you all on that amazing, life-changing, soul-affirming trip to St. Augustine. The trip to Florida was relatively unremarkable; I left my parents house at about midnight (after only shutting my eyes for three hours before the 15-hour drive; I was too anxious, too excited, too eager) and essentially took I-95 all the way down. I passed A LOT of accidents, which I worried might be a bad omen, but I also drove by the Capitol Building, the Washington Monument, and the Pentagon, which I don’t think I’ve ever done despite my many years traveling up and down the Eastern seaboard. Once I arrived in St. Augustine and made it to the hotel, all of my fears were assuaged. I made it, and I had never felt so blessed in my life. It was stunning – absolutely breathtaking – gorgeous! There were so many boats out on the water – the weather was pretty much perfect the entire time I was in St. Augustine – and I could see the boats in the bay from the balcony outside my hotel room. It was impossible (well, almost) to tell the residents from the tourists because everyone was walking along the water in the sunshine. Handsome men were running shirtless, couples were taking leisurely strolls with cool beverages in hand. Such clichéd phrases don’t even do it justice, but they’re all I seem able to muster. I was – and still am – SO grateful, SO thrilled for the opportunity. It was AMAZING and I was continuously in AWE.

How did I ever come back to Jersey?

People in St. Augustine seemed – to me, anyway – to have MONEY – like Gatsby money, and I didn’t bring a laptop to a flipping writers’ workshop/conference (because I didn’t have one; couldn’t afford one). I momentarily felt like an utter moron, but I was okay. And the first thing I purchased with my tax return money was a laptop so I feel like EVEN MORE of a writer now.

Anyway, the first night in St. Augustine was marked by an informal, get-to-know-everyone-dinner. It was … interesting, tp say the VERY least. I went down to the hotel lobby around 7pm and sat outside and waited. Naturally, the others had gathered inside so when I awkwardly meandered in after creeping about the greenery, I met everyone.

Greg is a retired firefighter from the Midwest. Joanna published two novels twenty years ago, and has a house in Palm Beach and a house in the Hamptons. Paula was in medical communications but now she lives in Houston and I think she’s writing full time. Add me to the crew and we were the writers all staying at the hotel.

I instinctively liked Michael Neff, the editor. I hoped I made a good impression and toyed the line between desperate and casual, if such a line even exists. During dinner, I sat between Joanna and Noreene, who just flew in from the Grand Cayman Islands; completely chic and fabulous. I sat across from Doug from Cincinnati; he was hard to read at first, but shortly became one of my favorite people from the whole experience (he used to be a stand-up comedian and the last few days in St. Augustine, he made me laugh so hard, I cried and on top of that, he really is a phenomenal writer, so whatever. Maybe I’m mostly jealous; favorite might be too positive a word. But I’m just kidding. Maybe). Greg was across from me as was Literary Agent Paula (who I’m only referring to as such to differentiate her from Paula from Houston; don’t worry, I didn’t call her that or anything).

I LOVED Literary Agent Paula and on the first night, she gave me GREAT advice. I’ve subscribed to Publisher’s Marketplace, have decided to really focus on finding an agent, am endeavoring to attend more “pitch” conferences, and have decided to break away from Martin Sisters Publishing (the separation ended up being mutual … more on that later). But from listening to everyone talk about the conferences they’d been to and the important people they knew, I felt overwhelmed and realized I was greener than I thought. I was the youngest person there by decades. I knew I had the talent and the passion, but quickly began to understand that I needed the wisdom.

Cris is an author from California and Lunka is an aspiring writer with a full-time job (so we had a somewhat instant connection) from Denver; so cool.

So the next day (February 25th) marked the first REAL day of the conference/workshop. I was SCARED; I worked on my pitch for the novel I was currently working on (the title was stupid, so I’ll just call it The Duke Story [even though that’s also stupid]) the night before but still felt mostly nauseous. We met at a beautiful house right on the beach, and it was like something out of a movie or, even better, out of a dream. We sat in a circle and everyone read their pitches. It was so cool and interesting to see how everyone’s pitch matched their personality. I was really impressed with a couple of the stories, and everyone had something awesome to share … except me. At least that’s what it felt like, because my mood went from nauseated to dead when both Literary Agent Paula and Michael told me The Duke Story wasn’t marketable and encouraged me to work on “Don’t Drink the Water” (but that title is different now, too).

I felt deflated and was too wrapped up in my own shit to enjoy lunch at The Reef, but I did get to know Cris. When we returned to the house to wrap up the day’s session, Literary Agent Paula advised me to ask Hallie Ephron (ARE YOU KIDDING ME?) about the possibility of working on Her Beautiful Monster; Michael loved the title and wanted me to re-work it, but Literary Agent Paula was nervous because it had been published, has an ISBN number, and can easily be looked up … even though the publisher is so small it’s obscure. I felt lost and was happy to return to the hotel. Joanna drove Greg, Paula and me back to the hotel, but we stopped at Publix and the liquor store first. Paula and I needed some grocery items and we all needed booze after the first day. I happily joined them for the free happy hour at the hotel, and got to know Paula better. We sat on the porch swing outside of her room and talked a little bit about everything in our lives. Then I got to work on our assigned homework (identify five things that make our protagonist sympathetic, interesting, unique, etc. by showing, not telling). I used Charlotte from “Don’t Drink the Water” and did okay.

The second day (February 26th) was MUCH better for my ego, my soul, my passion. When I pitched “Don’t Drink the Water,” both Michael and Literary Agent Paula liked it. Then I went on to meet Robert Olen Butler and HE CHANGED MY LIFE. Throughout the course of our conversation, he validated my dream. He understood The Duke Story and my intention; he took the words right out of my mouth, the words I wished I had when I first pitched the story in front of everyone, and he told me he believed I could do it. I cried and hugged him. He is an amazing man and I will forever be indebted to him, no matter what comes of my so-called writing career.

After the conversation, I reworked my pitch and befriended Lunka. We had a spiritual connection as we were both really moved by our conversations with Robert and we exchanged numbers. I have a new writer friend 🙂 After the day’s schedule, Greg and I got dinner in downtown St. Augustine, and I drank and bonded with Joanna at the hotel’s happy hour. While we were there, we met HALLIE EPHRON. I tried to play it cool, but I was sweaty and I’m almost certain I mumbled and drooled instead of actually forming words. She couldn’t have been nicer. Michael brought her there to check her in and he stopped to say hello and encouraged me to do his online course after the workshop/conference. Spoiler alert: I definitely am.

The third day (February 27th) was INTENSE. The morning was actually low-key; we re-worked our pitches and shared our character traits of our protagonists. We all broke for lunch after, and I ate Chinese with Joanna, Paula and Greg. We shared a bottle of wine to calm ourselves because the second half of the day, we pitched our stories to Executive Editor Lyssa Keusch of HarperCollins Publishers (WHAT?! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!), Brendan Deneen of Macmillan Entertainment (IS THIS REAL LIFE?!), and Hallie Ephron, the New York Times Best Selling Author (SERIOUSLY?!?!). It was a whirlwind and while I didn’t feel 100% about the experience, it was SO informational and beneficial.

To commemorate our last full day together in St. Augustine, we had dinner together and it was AMAZING, GREAT, WONDERFUL! Joanna and I became as thick as thieves, Doug made me laugh, and Noreene was as sweet as she was fabulous. Joanna and Greg and I drank together back at the hotel and Joanna convinced Lyssa to join us. SO EPIC. SO AWESOME.

All that was scheduled for our very last day (February 28th) were individual consults with Michael Neff. After each consult, the writer left amidst heartfelt goodbyes. My consult was GREAT; Michael was so helpful and encouraging. I left the conference/workshop with a definite purpose and direction and really, what more can a writer ask for? I am in the middle of research, of signing up for the novel development online course, and am beginning writing very soon.

So when I returned to Jersey all fired up, I emailed Martin Sisters Publishing to inquire about my second novel, MOODY BLUE. I had signed a contract and sent it back, but that was back in the final month of 2016 and had heard nothing back. As it turns out, they had no intention of publishing my novel (said they “…couldn’t give it the attention it deserves”) and offered to send it to an even smaller online publisher.

I told them not to bother, but thanked them for everything. I emailed Literary Agent Paula, Michael, and have begun to query agents once again.

Here we go.

Below are links to Joanna’s website and Doug’s website.
JoannaElm.com
DougSpakWrites.com

And I’m sharing some pictures below.

Prompts start again next week … I promise!

On talking to the dead.

Published April 14, 2015 by mandileighbean

Friday, April 10, 2015 marked 90 years since the publication of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the novel that essentially changed my life by confirming the kind of woman – the kind of human being – I wanted to be.

I couldn’t let such an occasion, such an anniversary; pass without some kind of commemoration.

So I drove three hours and 40 minutes to St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Rockville, Maryland.  I drove down I-95, which I have become so accustomed to that traversing that interstate is painfully boring.  I had my iPod blaring, but my mind was essentially blank, other than lingering upon the object of my affection and then Gatsby and then back again.  The object of my affection tried countless times to convince me of similarities between him and Jay Gatsby, of which there are admittedly a few.  We sent each other text messages late into the night while watching the film adaptation of the novel, discussing themes and characterization and life.  I only knew the novel was published on April 10th because of this man.  Gatsby was (is?) our thing.  So now, perhaps unfortunately, the fictional world of Jay Gatsby and my first heartbreak are inextricably linked forever and ever, amen.

Maybe that realization, that my favorite book is forever tainted by the inevitable disappointment of romance, made me somber and weird inside, but I was certainly reserved as I pulled into the church’s parking lot.  I parked in the further possible spot, closer to the adjacent school than the actual cemetery, but did so for no discernible reason.  In hindsight, I supposed I wanted to be ignored and inconspicuous, didn’t want to be a nuisance of any kind.  That notion seems laughable though, especially when I consider how absurd I must have looked, emerging from a piece of shit car – part of my front bumper is missing – in a fancy black dress too elegant and too formal for the impromptu graveside visit, with a fancy black coat that made me sweat but offered respite from the persistent mist.  I was alone, as always, and walking around aimlessly.  I’m sure I looked out of place and had anyone been around, I’m sure they would have chalked me up to some kind of weirdo.  To be fair, I guess that’s exactly what I am.

The entrance to the cemetery is across from a sign that reads, “BEAN BLVD.”  That cannot be coincidence; I don’t care what kind of logic is thrown at me.

I saw a gate, but it was small and unremarkable, so I assumed there must be a main gate somewhere, adorned with ironwork and a plaque or a sign – something.  Looking around furtively, worried I might just be trespassing, I followed the low, wrought iron fence around the perimeter of the cemetery but found no other entrance.  I traced my way back, which maybe took all of two minutes as the cemetery is rather small, to that first gate.  The latch, with its peeling paint, was worn enough to almost be rendered ineffective.  I considered it a particularly cruel kind of irony that this humble, rather shabby cemetery serves as the final resting place of the man who imagined Gatsby and the extravagant, opulent world in which that character existed.  I sighed and opened the gate, gingerly lifting the decrepit latch and gently shutting the gate behind me.

The grave was incredibly easy to find, partly because the cemetery is so small and partly because his marker is so large.  It’s off to the right of the short, winding path that just ends through the tiny, enclosed area.  I followed it, careful not to tread on the hallowed ground of those resting eternally, but had to leave the path eventually.  My heels sank into the soggy ground and I berated myself for my inconvenient melodramatics.  But then I faced Fitzgerald’s grave.

It’s a simple headstone.  It has his name, the years in which he lived and breathed and made the literary world a far better place.  His wife’s name is below, as are her years of existence.  Perpendicular and impressive is a stone slab that bears the last lines of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, the work that is often considered the great American novel.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

I was the only one mourning and paying homage to a brilliant and destructive man, but I hadn’t been the only one.  There was evidence of other grievers.  There was a bloated, yellowed with the age, rain-soaked paperback copy of The Great Gatsby.  I leaned close and found it was open to pages 116 and 117, where Nick warns Jay that the past cannot be repeated, but Jay is deaf and insistent.  “Can’t repeat the past?  Why, of course you can.  Of course you can.”

There was a sodden bouquet of roses, decimated by the rain, soaked and scattered, looking especially tragic and mournful.  Perhaps the passage and gray skies and the cemetery added to that impression.

There were many pens, an obvious but touching nonetheless tribute to an insanely talented author.

There were many pennies, what I mistakenly assumed was an Irish tradition until I took to Google.  Coins are left on graves for many reasons, but there are three reasons that appear to be the most common.  One reason dates back to Greek mythology, and coins are left as payment for the ferryman that transported souls across the river Styx.  The second is related to the military and dictates that leaving certain coins is evidence of a particular relationship.  For example, pennies are left by any living soldier visiting a veteran’s grave while nickels are left only by those who attended boot camp with the deceased.  The third reason is to simply leave evidence that one visited and was there.  How narcissistic is that, having to leave proof of our existence at the proof of another’s existence?

My favorite token was a small bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey with an accompanying shot glass.  Next year when I make the trip, I plan on bringing daisies – though I despise the fictional Daisy Buchanan I completely understand what it is she represents, as despicable as it is – and a bottle of gin or some other antiquated kind of alcohol.  I plan on having some shots and hanging out for a decent amount of time, telling Fitzgerald how much I admire him, how much many admire him, and that I hope heaven allows for him to see how important he has become.

Much like the title character of his greatest literary achievement, Fitzgerald died alone and in obscurity.  Apparently the priest who presided over his funeral services did not even know who Fitzgerald was.  Fitzgerald considered himself a failure, and drank himself to death, falling dead in the apartment of his girlfriend, some tabloid reporter that he may have shacked up with to aid his dwindling screenwriting career in cruel, unforgiving Hollywood.

I devoured Gatsby when I was fourteen years old.  I have read it at least once a year since, and have convinced myself that I am Gatsby.  And as I stood at Fitzgerald’s grave, pondering the possible autobiographical content of his greatest novel, I realized that therein lies the magic of the novel; we are all Gatsby.  We all want too much and at times, we can want to reclaim some version of our former selves, tirelessly and obsessively chasing after some enchanted object that we think will fix everything.  We are continuously disappointed, but we keep right on chasing, reaching in everlasting desperation.

I thought Philip Roth had it right, that the real human tragedy is that we are all woefully unprepared for tragedy.  Now I think Fitzgerald was right, that the real human tragedy is that we are never satisfied.  We want too much.

I said a few prayers, thanked him, and empathized with the dead author.  I explained that I was a writer and that I feared my talent – if I may be so arrogant in insisting that I have some – would go undiscovered.  I told him I was afraid of dying alone, of having absolutely no one to mourn at my graveside, let alone any fans.  I delicately turned the pages of the soaked novel, carefully turning pages made nearly transparent by the rain and other elements.  I turned to the part where Nick pays Gatsby the sole compliment of their friendship, when he tells Gatsby that Daisy and Tom and Jordan are a rotten crowd, and that Gatsby is worth the whole damn bunch put together.  Nick is glad he said that, even though he disapproved of Gatsby from the beginning to the end.  It is a beautiful sort of sentiment, and I wondered if Fitzgerald, like Gatsby, had a friend in the end who got someone for him.  I softly kissed my fingertips and let them trail along the cold stone as I began the brief walk out of the cemetery, back to my piece of shit car, parked suspiciously outside the adjacent Catholic school like some kind of inappropriate joke made in poor taste.

I drove back home, traveling for four hours, stopping to eat at McDonald’s and then almost immediately wanting to die as the food upset my stomach terribly.

Despite the bizarre and spontaneous nature of the trip, the irritating traffic and uncomfortable way the greasy, cheap food sank in my stomach, the trip was inspiring.  I began to develop an idea for a third novel.

And it’s all thanks to F. Scott Fitzgerald.  So I will return again and again to give thanks and pay homage because he communicated universal truths without restraint.  He was unashamedly who he was, embracing his genius and his insecurities and his worth and his faults all simultaneously.  Fitzgerald was wonderfully and beautifully human and wrote to be inclusive, to help everyone understand that we are all guilty, that we are all beautiful and deserving of love, that we can all be great.  We all reach out, trembling, for the green light.

And it’s okay.

fitzgrave

On being bold and priorities.

Published November 10, 2013 by mandileighbean

I freely admit that as of late, I have been something of a “Stranger Danger” when it comes to this blog, and to my writing career at large.  Teaching seems to be taking up every spare moment of my time, leaving me exhausted and uninspired.  I have always desired for teaching to be my career, but I never intended for it to become my life, to consume me.  I must then be bold, and align my priorities to my dreams.  No writer ever became successful by whining and making excuses.

That being said, I have an author event scheduled for Thursday, November 14th at Ocean County College in Toms River, New Jersey at 12:30PM.  The event is only open to students, faculty and staff, so if you are on campus that day, stop on by!  I will also have a table set up at the Ladies’ Night at Manchester Firehouse on Saturday, November 16th.

Au-Sauvignon-Bar-Paris

WEEKLY WRITING PROMPT #5: “A man traveling overseas meets the woman of his dreams, but they don’t speak a common language.”

     Michael had never been outside of the continental United States of America.  He had never even ventured to Alaska or Hawaii, let alone a country that was an ocean away.  He reasoned that most of it was because he was absolutely terrified of flying, and part of it was because of his never promising financial situation; he always seemed to be struggling, to register just a step behind.  Even in college, when he had wanted to study abroad in England, when he had access to financial aid, scholarships, and student loans, he had not been able to swing it.  As a matter of fact, the only reason Michael was seated by the window of a 757 airplane was because his father had died.  At the ripe old age of 57, John Sullivan had dropped dead of a heart attack.  Just about a month ago, just a few short months before he was due to retire; Mr. Sullivan had been in the break room of the warehouse at the seaport in Elizabeth, New Jersey.  He had been pouring himself a crappy cup of coffee into a Styrofoam cup when everything just suddenly seized up and stopped.  He couldn’t breathe or think, and so he simply collapsed and died.  There had been no goodbye for his youngest child, his only son; no words of wisdom, no teachable moment as he lay dying about life and love and what is really important.

There had been a horrendously depressing funeral where Michael had to practically carry his mother from one uncomfortable folding chair to another.  She wept and fell, popped another Xanax, called for her husband who was six feet in the ground, held her two daughters (Michael’s older sisters), popped a Xanax, stared off into space, crumbled, popped a Xanax, withered, and slept.  She had been more of a presentable widow, though she would be forever heartbroken, at the reading of the will.  John Sullivan, in death as he always had been in life, took great care of his loved ones.  Each child received $15,000 and a personal, sentimental memento (Michael had inherited his father’s varsity letter jacket).  His mother inherited everything else, aside from unremarkable amounts of money left to John’s one sister and six brothers.  Michael sat alone in his childhood bedroom sometime later, turning the check over in his shaking hands again and again.  His mother advised him to invest it.  His oldest sister encouraged him to save it, to simply put it away.  His other sister hugged him tightly and told him to do whatever he wanted because that is what their Dad would have wanted.  So he had kissed her, packed his bag, and here he was, flying across the Atlantic.

Michael had decided on France; he could not explain why he had chosen France, but it felt right.  Then again, maybe it was the valium and glass of vodka he had ingested and imbibed shortly after takeoff.  When he landed, there was a substantial terrifying amount of time where Michael panicked over changing currency, renting a car, and struggling to understand and be understood.  But despite initial terror and uncertainty, events had unfolded smoothly and before long, Michael had located his hotel, unpacked his bags, and hit the town.  Night had descended upon Paris as a familiar love, and Michael had trouble articulating the myriad of exciting feelings which were enveloping his saner, more rational self.  Sitting outside a populated bar, sipping from a glass of merlot, Michael felt smarter, stronger, sexier, and more alive than he ever had before.  Possibilities were endless and seemed more like guarantees than anything else.  He could be the life of a party- any party.  He released a short, anticipatory breath and leaned back against the faux wicker chair he was sitting in.  The emerald, checkered tablecloth created a desirable ambiance, but the outside of the bar was deserted and Michael did not want to be alone or lonely or anything of the sort.  He downed the rest of his merlot and hurried back inside.

The music was loud, but lacked the thumping bass so common to American nightclubs and as a result, was classier and more elegant.  Michael liked that; he liked that the interior was dimly lit but the lights reflected warmly against the mahogany, and Michael felt comfy, cozy, and right at home.  He slid against packed bodies that were not grinding mindlessly and sweating profusely, but talking – discussing lively topics.  This was where Michael was supposed to be – he was sure of it – and he bellied up to the bar, ready to order another glass.  His finger was poised in the air and his mouth was open, ready to call “Garcon!” but an intoxicating beauty cut him in line, speaking rapidly in French with a remarkable smile.  She had long, wavy, dark hair that fell past her shoulders.  Her eyes were dark and round, and caught the light in a similar fashion to the way that the mahogany did.  Michael’s mouth stayed open as he watched her, in her scarlet cocktail dress, move like liquid, in rolling waves of self-confidence and beauty.  He knew that he needed to know her.  He leaned closer to her, tapped her on the shoulder so that she turned towards him.  He extended his hand and said, “Hey, I’m Michael.”

After only a slight hesitation, she took Michael’s hand in hers.  Her grip was somehow feminine and firm, somehow perfect.  “Bon soir,” she greeted.  She liked his darker features and she liked his smile.  He was an American, a tourist, but there were worse things a man could be, she reasoned.  All of this assessment was hopelessly lost on Michael, who assumed she was providing her name, Dawn Soar.  He beamed and jerked his head backwards, towards the dance floor.  He asked her if she would like to dance and made a childish and endearing sort of pantomime.  She laughed at his innocence and brazen nature, but nodded and allowed herself to be led onto the floor.  There was a wizened veteran of the bar scene seated before the ivory keys, crooning beautifully.  Fearsome of awkward silence, Michael began talking and did not stop.  He told her everything, how much he missed his father, how much he worried about his mother, what this trip meant, how beautiful she was and how thankful he was that he had met her.  She listened patiently, a small, sad, concentrated smile on her pretty face.  She rested her head on his broad, masculine shoulder, which Michael assumed was a good sign.  They stayed that way for an eternity, swaying until the lights came up – the international signal that it was time to head home.  She looked up at him with sleepy, romantic eyes and explained, in her best French, that she could understand English but could not speak it, but would be thrilled to see as much of him as possible during his stay.  She also told him that her name was Antoinette, and Michael blanched because he had been calling her Dawn the entire time.  She wrote her number on a napkin and disappeared into the crowded Paris streets.

Michael woke with the dawn the following morning and purchased a translation book from the lobby of his hotel.

Paris-Bar

On Boston.

Published September 30, 2013 by mandileighbean

One of the facets of my personality of which I am most proud is my predilection to travel, to throw caution to the wind and simply drive.  Last weekend, I traveled to Boston with Raina.  Originally, I was attending an author event for Stephen King and then Raina and I were going to meet up with Liz.  Unfortunately, traffic and random construction prevented me from spending the evening with Stephen King, my literary idol.  Fortunately, I was with amazing friends and we had a wonderful time.  I was captivated by our conversation, by the scenery and the understated beauty of Boston.  Our hotel room overlooked the harbor and I knew it was exactly where I was supposed to be at that moment.  If only I felt so certain more often in life.

WEEKLY PROMPT #2: “A young mother is told that her children have been killed in a drive-by shooting.”

 driveby1COLD

“Alright, you lazy piece of shit, have it your way!” Brenda screamed out into the absolutely frigid night air.  Her breath hung before her as puffy vapor, and she hoped her words hung there just the same, regardless of their vulgarity or of the volume at which they had been shouted.  As a matter of fact, Brenda was damn near ready to pray that her degradations echoed in the still winter air, bouncing back to her nightmare of an ex-boyfriend from any number of surfaces, all coated in snow and ice.  She muttered more slurs and curses as she worked to shut her window against the cold, revolving the crank as fast and as hard as she could to see the glass barely inch along.  Much like her ex-boyfriend, her car was total piece of shit and she focused on the lack of power windows to black out the frustrated and terrified wailings of the children only barely buckled in the backseat.  They were her daughters, ages two and five and both had been fathered by the piece of shit who wanted nothing to do with any of them, and who had just stormed back inside his trailer, evidenced by the screen door in extreme disrepair banging against an already battered frame.  “Fucking asshole,” Brenda screamed to release the fury, but with the window finally rolled up, the space seemed cramped and lethal and the words seemed especially cruel as they settled heavily onto the girls like ash from some great disaster, eruption, or explosion.  If Brenda really stopped to think about it, she would realize her daughters were constantly covered in such debris, but she didn’t want to do that because guilt was an ugly and messy thing.  Thinking was half the problem, anyway; Brenda spent most of her time pondering and contemplating, and what had it gotten her?  Where had it brought her?  Here, to this absolute train wreck of a life?  Well, fuck you very much; Brenda did not want to be here any longer, so she slammed the shifter into reverse and peeled out of the tiny drive, letting the gravel fly.  She was going to speed towards relief, towards her apartment and her couch and a large tumbler filled with vodka.

But what about the girls?  Easy; she’d drop them off at her mom’s place.  She never said no and besides, didn’t Ma owe Brenda a great deal for essentially dismantling her formative years by providing no central male figure, and being a hot mess of a role model?  Brenda thought so, or at least she thought she read something like that somewhere important.  With a plan in mind, Brenda felt calm and steady.  She took a deep breath in and let a deep breath out, not surprised by the accompanying smoke because it was freezing in the vehicle.  The heater only rattled to prove it was on but not necessarily that it was working, offering only superficial and minimal relief from the extreme temperatures.  Brenda shivered, but gave no thought whatsoever to the two darling girls in the back, clad only in thin, stained nightgowns with matching backpacks – soiled and practically empty – strewn across the floor of the vehicle.  The crying had slightly subsided, perhaps because the girls had realized, at even so young an age, that their parents were radically unstable and simply could not care for them.  Maybe they were finally becoming accustomed to shuttling between filthy, cheap apartments littered with bottles, syringes, pipes, and burns in the ugly, itchy carpets.  It was possible the girls quieted their sobs because the preternaturally knew it would all be over soon, either because one of their two sets of grandparents would finally adopt – rescue – them, or they would die.  Having no sort of concept whatsoever about the latter, the girls may have been consoling themselves with thoughts of their grandparents, but it is far more likely and certainly plausible that the girls were too physically exhausted – hungry, malnourished, and in desperate need of a bath – and mentally drained to even cry.

Brenda, on the other hand, was still simply pissed.  Not only did that douche bag not keep the kids like he was fucking supposed to – like he had agreed to – but she was out of cigarettes, too.  There was sincerely no way in hell she could survive the remainder of the ride to her mother’s home, let alone the lecture she’d certainly receive upon arrival, without some menthols.  Brenda also firmly believed that vodka is best served from embarrassingly cheap glassware, that is truly only thick plastic, alongside a nice, long drag of a cigarette.  And therein lay her plan for the evening, sitting her tired and frankly unappreciated ass on the couch, and drinking and smoking until both her vision and hearing were drastically impaired.  She owned the sofa and ignored its repulsive condition; she had plenty of vodka because she always made damn sure she would never run out.  All she needed were the smokes.

For the first time on the drive, Brenda seriously considered her surroundings (it was nothing short of a miracle that there hadn’t been an accident).  They were in an awfully shady and decidedly dangerous part of town.  She had only been this far east once, and that had been because the douche bag extraordinaire had needed a fix.  Brenda figured she now needed a fix herself, but her craving was not illegal nor did it incite theft or murder.  She certainly had her misgivings, but pulled into the essentially deserted parking lot of the Cumberland Farms on the corner.  It was well lit and practically empty, so Brenda assumed the chances of danger were lowered.  Or had her need for self-medication risen to an alarming new level?  Fuck it – she was tired of thinking.  She put the car in park and made to kill the engine and remove the key from the ignition, but she stopped.  She whipped her head back to the girls, who simply sat and stared stupidly back at their wrecked, crumbling mother.  Their eyes were red and swollen, as were their thin, tiny lips and the whole of their faces glistened from tears and spit and sweat.  They had finally gone quiet.  Brenda cleared her throat.  “Mama’s just got to run inside the store, okay?  Mama will leave the car running so you don’t freeze, alright?”

There was no response, not that Brenda thought there would be, and so she hurried from the car.  Her slipper-covered soles fell softly onto the sidewalk and scurried closer to the light and warmth of the interior of the convenience store.  Just to the left of the entrance were two formidable-looking men, hooded and avoiding any unnecessary and undue attention.  They were certainly suspicious and inexplicably made Brenda slow her pace, feeling the tiny hairs on the back of her neck stand at attention.  Shrugging it off, Brenda slipped inside and strolled to the counter, doing her best to display a winning smile.  The clerk behind the counter was a male and attractive, so Brenda made a concerted effort to bat her eyelashes and laugh breathlessly for no apparent reason.  “Hey there,” she crooned.  “Do you have Pall Malls?”

There was the sound of screeching tires, but no one seemed to notice; not the two men dressed and ready for danger outside, or the two inside the store.

“Uh,” the clerk turned to face the massive wall of nicotine behind him.  His eyes roamed over the rows and rows of packs, all different colors.  He turned around after a moment.  “Yes, yes we do.”

“Do you have 100s in the orange pack?” Brenda asked, leaning over the counter so that her small breasts squished together to look bigger.  They were nearly falling out of her tank top, but her shame had departed with her pride and her figure some time ago.

Shots rang out; many, many shots, too many shots to count, just one pop after another.  The glass windows shattered and instinctively, Brenda dropped to her knees.  She couldn’t see anything, clapped her palms across her eyes and screamed.  She tried to curl up as small as she could to try and stay safe and alive.  The clerk had done much the same on the other side of the counter, and both stayed hidden until they heard tires peel away and could smell rubber burning against pavement.  They rose to face one another.  An odd, eerie silence followed immediately after the shots, where Brenda and the clerk were both frozen – rooted to the spot – and it had nothing to do with the weather.  Brenda locked eyes with the clerk, as if doing so made everything else go dark and become nonexistent.  She had a feeling, a horrible and inexplicable feeling that something terrible had happened, that the shots had been pointed pebbles carelessly launched at her fragile life and now it was shattering and splintering and cracking.  The clerk was the first to break the eye contact, turning away and leaning low and to the right to use the telephone.  He was calling 911.  Brenda didn’t know how she knew that, only that she did, because her ears were fuzzy, like they had been plugged with cotton.  She felt nauseous and overwhelmed and alone, so very alone.  She turned and thought she might stumble to the door, but to her surprise, she was running.  She burst through the door and found the two men dead at her feet, blood splashed and spattered this way and that.  Her eyes darted between them to her car.  The vehicle could only have been a few feet away, but Brenda believed the distance to be the greatest she had ever crossed in all her life.  She was screaming, trying to scream their names but she knew it was unintelligible and more guttural than anything else.  She collapsed against the rear passenger door and worked for a moment before she wrenched it open.

Both the girls were slumped over, bleeding steadily.

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