Writing Archives - Filets to Fishsticks

Madison Alice Price

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A story in process.

With her back to the ground and her legs accommodating so her feet can rest to match, Madison, a girl of nearly six, lays in her yard with her thoughts, small as they may be, wandering toward something unfamiliar. She digs her nails into the earth, wiggling her toes and fingers in the uniform blades of an almost artificial lawn, a living comb in a familiar dance, feeling the cold soil against her skin, waiting for something to happen, hearing the grit of the earth against her nails. From a distance, even the relatively short distance that lay between her and the rich stain of the back porch – an excessive outdoor space that dances the line between gaudy and foolish – she looks like nothing more than a girl in a yard watching the clouds. Her frame is too small to highlight her straining, and even the arching of her back, when mixed with the grass and the angle of view from the house, couldn’t bee seen as anything abnormal.

But eventually, with her eyes on the clouds and her thoughts focused on the ground at her back, her fingers and toes drive into the soil. Her body constricts as her reach expands, and that feeling – a familiar, natural, uncomfortable feeling – returns. A sudden hurry in her body as much as in her head, a winding spring. The tips of her fingers and the soft spheres of tissue at the ends of her toes split and reach, a naked white in the earth, veining into the soil as the barren branches vein into the sky above her.

She feels her fingers in those branches as her skin warms in the cold, aching like a wintered hand beneath a steaming tap. She feels a sense of belonging that doesn’t feel right. A tingling in her limbs, a faintness in her now rapid breath. Shallowness in her gut. A comfortable nervousness in the most uncomfortable way. For a moment, made even briefer by her inability to understand it, she feels outside of herself.

Then nothing.

Her fingers and toes withdraw from the earth without warning, sending her arms and legs toward her chest. She’s left alone and breathless and curled on her side in the lawn, shivering in the cold, too confused to respond to her mother yelling from the porch, demanding that she put on her coat and socks and, for God’s sake, her shoes, because it’s time to go. Madison can smell the dirt in the yard like she can smell it in herself. The earth she doesn’t want to be a part of. She can feel the steady breathing of the ground, a steady rhythm borrowed from her own or borrowed just the same in the other direction.

Eventually she does as she’s told, ignoring the ache in her fingers and the hole in her stomach. By the time she’s put on her last shoe, her mother is walking toward her asking why she insists on taking off her shoes and socks and what was she doing out there anyway. Madison shrugs in response and looks at the ground and feels her face go flush. She ignores a remark about the brilliance of her eyes as she walks in hand with her mother out of the yard and across the patterned brick driveway to the wagon, ignoring also the pull she feels behind her, a set of eyes on her back.

Madison Alice Price, named for popularity, heritage, and the patriarchal dominance of the family name – not to mention her father’s hobby-driven love of topography – lays bundled for the weather in a wagon. Despite the clever fabric origami of a folded blanket, the makeshift padding curls up both metal sides of the aged four-wheel pull-along, decreasing her space and her comfort. She says nothing of her irritation, preferring instead to constantly molest the fabric in an attempt to correct the issue, knowing full well it’s of little use. She is also longer than the wagon, a problem she fixes through the use of minor contortions and simple leg placement, making her situation far from ideal. But standards of ideal, assume her parents, vary with age, and they take no notice.

The year is 1991. The wagon is a Radio Flyer with muted red paint and a black handle that’s riddled with dents. There’s rust, a red much deeper and much dirtier than the paint itself, the blood of the wagon, on the under side of each edge, and age shows through from where her sister laid in much the same manner before her.

The Gulf war is in full swing somewhere in the world and Madison’s father has made it very clear on several occasions that he disagrees with the whole damn thing. Though her mother never vocalizes her opinion, she nods from time to time out of respect. But none of this makes the least bit of different to Madison as she lies in her hand-me-down wagon and stares up at the sky and the leafless branches that comprise her view. Her sister runs ahead, her father pulls the wagon, and her mother talks about fall, about the change of colors, while keeping one hand under her now undeniably pregnant belly out of habit or instinct or fear.

Despite her general enjoyment of the wagon and the effortless change of scenery it offers, she dislikes the confinement. She’s happiest in the grass, close to the earth and the soil and each time this notion crosses her mind and her small nose catches the smell of the earth in the air, she grows uneasy and her unspoken irritation with the wagon increases. She thinks of nothing other than the ground itself.

From her vantage point, as supine as possible given her circumstances, she counts the nests now sitting exposed in the barren branch system that webs the sky. Her counting, made inaccurate by both the sporadic placement of the nest and her wiliness to accept all ignorable distractions, is muffled and broken by the sound of her father’s voice. Attempting to express his political opinions, based largely on heresy and headlines rather than education or the articles to which said titles are attached, he speaks with excitement and wild hand gesture, occasionally swaying Madison from side to side, much to her amusement.

And again, without warning, her mother asks her what she was doing in the yard. And why did she have to remove not only her coat, but her socks and shoes as well? Before Madison can begin to ignore the questions and count additional nests, her mother peers back over her shoulder with a smile and a cocked look.

Madison doesn’t take notice of the look just as she neglects to notice her mother’s hand. But there, two down from the wedding band that sits audaciously on her finger, is dirt. A hint of black earth between her mother’s French manicured nail and her naked skin. A bit missed in cleaning perhaps. A bit left beneath the nail of a woman who sets neither foot nor hand in the garden.

But little Madison, caught in her wagon, counting the nests in the trees, misses these things. And her father does as well. Despite his good intentions and the love he feels for his daughters, a love so protective and focused that dreaming of the future causes a very real pain, he serves little purpose. But he is a good man and Madison’s mother knows that is his purpose.

Of course her mother also knows that the baby kicking about in her womb, a girl to be named after a great grandmother she’ll never have the opportunity to meet, has no direct relationship to this man walking beside her and, aside from the carrying and delivery, no direct relation to herself. And she knows that she is from the same vein that gave life to her daughters and to her own mother before her. But to say she understands any of it for what it is would be false, if not ignorant. She understands the process, the uncertainty, and the warming cold. She knows her role as it could be written on paper. She knows the term mother and she knows what it implies. But she still finds herself alone in the yard trying to figure out what it means and why she enjoys disliking it.

In Your Windows

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I will look in your windows at night when the yellow iridescence of the street lamps meets the warm glow from you home over a dark patch somewhere between the sidewalk and your walls. I won’t stop in front of your house or apartment or townhome. I won’t linger or stare or invade the space that you’ve created. But I will look into your windows and into your life, into the shadow-box formed by the unique light of your house against the night. I will look and I will make guesses and assumptions as I walk, bundles against the cold, past your home bundled.

I’ll compare the light to the paint color. I’ll wonder if that color is crimson or terra cotta or some more exuberant shade such as “roasted macintosh” or “brick in sunlight.” I’ll guess at the temperature in the room from this one clue, with a certain fondness for deep reds and browns and rich yellows. A fondness that never extends to my own home. I’ll wonder at the art on the walls, squinting to see the positioning, and I’ll wonder just the same at the lack of art if that should be the case. I’ll tell myself a story about the portraits and the landscapes and the frames, dark heavy wood or faux gilt or cold metal, that hold each piece.

I will look into your windows and into your life, into the shadow-box formed by the unique light of your house against the night

I’ll catch a glimpse of a tight-backed sofa or a loved armchair or a floral no longer considered in style, but loved none the less. I’ll see furniture used and loved or pampered and protected. I’ll see table lamps with cloth shades resting on tables that remain hidden beneath the sill. I’ll guess at which seat is most comfortable, most inviting, most often offered to guests. I’ll see flickering screens as big as the window with watchers lost in the programming. I’ll see dinners is progress, phones pressed to ears, the isolating glow of electronics, laughter, exhaustion, and laziness after a long day.

I’ll see these things through drawn shades or parted curtains. Through each of three panels on a bay window or the various compartments of a latticed frame. I’ll see what I see without invitation or invasion as I pass by with only a few moments to glance and wonder and enjoy. I’ll see what only I can see from my spot on the sidewalk, outside and alone in the cold.

On Facing Rejection Every Day

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I received a rejection on a creative piece of writing about two weeks ago. Like others in the past, this one was honest. Thanks but no thanks. Unlike the others, this one came in the mail in an envelope I addressed to myself five months ago. It’s the first rejection that I’ve been able to hold in my hand.

I’ve been spending the last 9-12 months trying to get my writing out there, really pushing both my art and my skill, but rejections on creative pieces, real pieces of who I am, have yet to hit softly.

It makes me want to write more and it makes me want to stop writing.

I could go on about rejection and getting up after being knocked down and moving on and all of that, but there are thousands of other places to read such things and many of them probably have deeper insight than what I can offer. But what I can say is that this recent rejection, this one general form letter, is sitting on my desk in plain view. And it has been since the day I got it. In fact, it’s sitting upright and I can see it from my bed. I can stare at it before going to sleep and it’s become one of the first things my eyes focus on when I wake up. I see it and I hate it. But I won’t move it. I won’t even touch it to adjust its awkward crease.

It makes me want to write more and it makes me want to stop writing. It makes me want to submit two pieces for every one that gets kicked back and it makes me want to burn my laptop to the ground. It makes me angry thinking they rejected my work and it makes me embarrassed thinking that I actually thought my work would be a good fit everywhere.

Because it’s not. And it never has been. And I hope it never will be.

To some my work it quite good. To others its just the opposite. To others still its *shrug* “let’s just send him this form letter that we’ll crease off center because somehow we can guess that he’s oddly particular about that sort of thing and that one crease will bother him more than the rejection, therefore diminishing the blow.” But I’ll keep writing for those that enjoy it. And if I happen to run into someone who doesn’t? Well, I’ll just prop their thoughts on my desk, too. But if I know one thing, I know this: I never want rejections to feel commonplace. I never want to like form letters and I never want to grow numb to them. I never want my work to mean that little to me. I want to feel every rejection I receive and I want that feeling, that humbling, angry sting of rejection, to be something I never make peace with.


A Book on the Way

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Over three years ago, I had a story in my head. A fun, curiosity-driven children’s story that told itself in color and sound and excitement. I knew this story needed illustrations that would match the vibrancy of what I created in words, and I knew my good friend Christian Jackson, a man of more talents that I can count, could bring the story to life. With that said, I’d like you to meet Maggie, the protagonist in an amazing children’s story that is readying itself for the world.


On Shortcuts

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Randall Road, Route 64, Route 38, Route 31, Route 25: The main roads in in a web of right angles. I was nearly 21 and those roads anchored my 2005 summer home of St. Charles, approximately 40 miles west of Chicago. Suburbia. A gridiron landscape where the cardinal directions are king and the occasional roundabout or irregular subdivision break the flow. Public transit is sparse. The five main runs link neighboring towns while forming arteries from retail to residential to everything in between.

Fresh from the small towns of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I knew grids and blocks and the residential-commercial divide as well as any suburbanite. I knew that this particular grid, one that would only last me for the summer, was probably the same. I knew it was temporary, a place for lucrative summer employment. All I needed to learn were the main roads. The Big Five. I’d lived by them. If I couldn’t find it on one of those critical stretches of asphalt, it didn’t exist. One left and a right had me on Randall, from there, a left or right eased me onto Route 38 or Route 64. A left or right from either of those would send me north or south on one of the two odd numbered state highways.

The pattern worked for me. I made it fit my needs.

Then I met a woman with a 15 month old son. My old temporary summer stay quickly became my new permanent. But I held on to doing things one way and one way only: The only way I knew. Our first apartment was just off Randall and the traffic it welcomed each day was visible from the deck. It was loud, but comforting to me. The blurring of headlights and taillights in the trailing light of day was a backdrop for my life. My ranking as a knowledgeable resident was poor and my standing as a parent, both financially and emotionally, was the same. Ignorance is prime at only 21.

Over the next few years I let myself accept the permanency of my temporary plan. I accepted that my new family was not in moving mode. My partner enjoyed being close to her parents and our son, then four and a half, was entering preschool. I let myself discover alternate paths as a way of handling the lack of change. I took a new job and we moved. Life were fresh.

The small, residential veins that prevent the main roads from being completely congested at all hours worked their way into my life. I wanted to learn all of them and I felt a sense of pride not in knowing the shortcuts, but in creating them. I treated my new found interest as an art, realizing that shortcuts are exciting. I found no shame in the easy way out of a situation. I was streamlining.

If the second of four lights was green on my approach, I’d continue strait for another 50 yards to a low-traffic stop and a right turn. If that second light was red on my approach, my entire strategy changed. Time was critical. Paths were chosen based on the direction of my next turn, the busyness of the intersection, and the speed limit of each street.

My weaving, strategic style of living kept me occupied and years passed with rolling stops and yield signs that were easily disregarded. It was less evasion than it was creative maneuvering. Rigidity marked things difficult and I was convinced that every turn, every avoided light, saved me a considerable amount of time. I streamlined my driving and my life benefited in the process, but that process grew less appealing.

I stopped caring about speed.

Shaving one solid minute off of my drive was no longer rewarding. But different routes remained of interest. I went from racing time to taking time, choosing streets based on their appeal. For months, my wanderings brought me down Seventh Street, a grid-style offshoot from Route 64 on the west side of the river, that lead nowhere other than the heart of residential suburbia. More significantly, it leads me by an aged, deep green Victorian: A large house on a lot that sits three wide and two deep with a carport to the north.

I chose streets based on the amount of space between the sidewalk and the road itself, favoring the larger parkways. I enjoyed the symmetry of the trees that filled those parkways. I based my turns on the name of the street, the age of the asphalt, or the general character of the houses, with a certain fondness for bungalows and midcentury ranches, though I never want to live in either.

I watched the time, but I did so by allowing for extra, leaving early so I could waste time wandering. The number of turns and routes and options seemed endless. The nuances I notice were inspiring. Each route was unique and every direction offered different discoveries.

But even that excitement has faded. Discovery only lasts for so long before becoming commonplace. I was losing rather than gaining, adding time simply in the interest of time. Eventually I stopped caring about the mysterious Victorian, the streets named after evergreens, and the parkways that could serve as small parks. The main drags and the small streets now blend together and my goal is to get to my destination with as little thought or effort or interest as possible so I can enjoy being there.

I’m at the end of the shortcuts. Last time, I moved to fix this problem. This time I don’t know. But I know that when the way loses its appeal, it’s time for something to change. And there’s no shortcut for figuring out what that change needs to be.

In Character: Two

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The boy spends his time standing by the window in the front corner of the house staring north toward the street with the east corner window, sitting just out of alignment with the other, on his right. He stands with his left hand on the sil, motionless except for the faint sweep of his fingers tracing the grain of the wood nearly masked beneath the paint and his right hand perched, searching in the dust, between the frames of north and east, his palm to the north with his thumb holding place and the remainder of his fingers in the corner, out of sight between the white frames, reaching toward the dark blue of the walls made even darker by the confinement.

And when he’s not standing, staring with a curiosity as innocent and interested as the look on his face, motionless outside of his equally curious, equally innocent hands, he’s walking from whatever room he happens to find himself to that very spot where he’ll place his hands and rest and stare and focus north with the east on his right, his walk nonchalant and misdirected by turns and rooms unneeded along the way.

And if he’s neither walking nor standing and staring, but rather doing something completely unrelated but largely normal for a boy of 6 such as flipping with demanding rapidity through a book more for the sound produced than for the flipping itself, or shifting through his toys which rest with no sense of order beyond the disorder into which he has placed them, or searching through everything to find anything to do while knowing, as does everyone else around him, that nothing found will be suitable, the north facing corner window is in the back of his mind. A thought he doesn’t know is there.

The corner is his corner. The north facing window, with its east facing counterpart and its northeast shared corner, is his window. The street running perpendicular to the direction from which his window allows him to peer, distorted slightly by the sunken, blended viscosity of an aged pane, is his street. And while his corner gives him nothing more than something to wonder about, there he stand as quiet, as curious, and as content as ever. Doing nothing more than wondering.