10 June 2011


I'm away for the weekend at a family event. I continued the discussion of Terence Malick's beautiful new film "The Tree of Life" with the fine folks over at An und für sich in the Comments. Check it out.

As promised, here's the (short) first chapter of EULOGY. And yes, I'm a firm adherent of the Oxford comma. Enjoy. Ridicule. Comments welcome. It's a free web.


Nina had an ingénue's instinct for make-up, lighting, and blocking. She knew how to stand, to angle her head, to drape her hair just so, to shade her damaged features for best effect. More than once I had come upon her lurking in front of a mirror—in our apartment of many mirrors, framed and bare, among the paintings and photographs and playbills—in various lights, cocking her head first left then right, swiveling her shoulders, mussing her hair. "Don't sneak up on me," she would snap, stiffening though not averting her gaze, pretending to adjust the frame, or swiping at a speck on the glassy surface.

Now we were facing off, Nina and I, in a still, daring silence. Even the dust motes in the apartment's first faint sunbeams seemed suspended in the air between us. Her face bared toward me, her limpid green eyes, sometime springs of dancing light, muddied with anger—or hate or hurt, I could never tell.

"You don't touch me anymore," she said, breaths bittered by sleep and coffee. Her stare never wavered, her eyes having forgotten how once they would flit back and forth, searching out each of mine in turn as if they were afraid my gaze might wander, and with it my affections.

Without looking away, I looped and tucked my tie in one deft motion. "I've hardly slept." The front of my head, the backs of my eyes, pounded. I buttoned down the collar flaps on my shirt and slid up the knot of my tie. "Besides you’ve been so busy with your play."

"You can go now, if you want." Her left hand flew up as though she were swatting at the hum of a gnat or, more likely, wiping me from her sight. A faint pinch of skin in the corner of her better eye, an arched eyebrow—sarcasm—flickered across her face.

Go where? To work? Away? And then, with the electronic chirping of the phone, the moment evaporated, her words still bristling in the morning air. I started, she perhaps for an instant sniffing triumph by virtue of flinch.

"Joshua? Son?" My father's voice, frailer than I remembered, more tentative, crept through the wires: my mother had been taken to the hospital. Then allowed to return home. There was no hope. "That's not what she wants," he said. "She wants to be here at home." He hated to bother me, he said, but would I possibly care to see her this one last time?

"I think I can get away today," I said. "I'll have my secretary call you with the flight."

"Nina, I have to go. It's Mother." I stared down at the phone. "She's dying."

"It's just like her to pull a stunt like this." I felt the sting in her voice, her eyes lasering precise holes in the back of my neck.

"What'd you say?" Not sure I was meant to hear her. Then sure.

"What about Saturday night?" her exasperation growing.

"There's never a good time," I said. "For death, I mean. I haven't seen them in like ten years, since the wedding. Dad thinks this will be my only chance to say goodbye. I need to go. I owe them that. But I'll be back in time. I promise."

"As if this weekend weren't bad enough already," she said. She turned and hunched her back, her head down, clasping her arms across her breast as if to shield something vital.

"Like I have the time for this," I muttered, whipping my jacket through my arms and over my head. "I've got that damned hearing tomorrow afternoon, too. Look, I'll get the earliest flight I can this morning, go down and get this over with, say my goodbyes or whatever, and be back tomorrow first thing. It’s no big thing." I stepped across the space that separated us, caressed her shoulders, and kissed the crown of her head. Her body was still soft and warm with sleep. I wanted more. "This isn't over yet." It was a question.

She turned and seemed to nod, sliding back a strand of liquid black hair to unveil the puckered, discolored skin that was the left side of her face. She looked up only as far as my chin. "Do what you have to," she said, patting the lapels of my jacket, then collapsed against my shoulder.

It wasn't. Yet.

More later. Or not.


Frances Madeson said...

This is your secretary calling with the flight details…

Thank you so much for posting this chapter, Jim. It’s really interesting read against Beni in Harley, and the story you wrote about the sociopathic girl in your suburb who kidnapped Jake--the common themes of damage control, consistent also with your politics.

This is your secretary calling with the flight details…

On its own terms, I confess I didn’t feel liftoff in this piece; the style is too conformist here, too concerned with appearances, fitting in. Like your protag, the author seems to have deftly tied the knot on his own unbridled creativity.

This is your secretary calling with the flight details…

Your final image of collapse made me think of Jared Diamond’s most valuable insight in Collapsed, which for me was the articulation of his fifth category: The societal response to environmental damage as the key in determining which civilizations survive and which collapse.

This is your secretary calling with the flight details…

I can see you radically rewriting Eulogy with your innovative running shoes on your hands and fingers, letting them have at the keyboard.

Jim Pettit said...

James --

A couple of thoughts from the goat farm.

I'm pretty sure I've never heard this, which (1) selfishly reassures me we trudge along together and (2) man, did I hate Nina! I'd heard much of Josh previously, but never felt as bad for him as I did here(even if his self-absorption approaches hers).

Seconds, "breaths." I kind of like it, but the plural stops me and the coffee/sleep is strong.

Damaged features may be too much of a hint/wink to prepare for the puckered, discolored that comes later. I almost thought it was initially a reflection of her vanity/self-involvement rather than actual scarring.

"It wasn't over. Yet."

And thanks for all your suggestions. They've helped a lot.

Jim H. said...

Thanks for the notes, fellow fictioners. Duly recorded.

Randal Graves said...

Had to come back and reread before commenting. I like this; it feels to-the-point, which usually isn't my preferred bag - I'm a sucker for rambling purple - which is probably why I wish there was more...backstory isn't the right word, and that's also not exactly what I'm getting at either. Pain in the ass to translate an idea into words, innit? Do want to read more though.

Jim H. said...

Thanks RG Maybe stream-of-csns is the term. Part of the character of Josh is his being out of touch with his feelings. He's very articulate about external, objective reality, but less so of his inner life. Though still a flaneur. We, I hope, learn more about his inner world than he necessarily has access to—at least early on. The diff. b/w this, Ch. 1, and the last chapter is HUGH!

The sine qua non of a ch. 1 is 'do want to read more though.' Thanks. It functions, but barely according to FM, my sec'y w/ the flight details. It doesn't quite take off. btw: the humor doesn't come til later. JP has heard chapters before, and his comments are always short and to the point—on point. Much of the critique I get is that "I don't like Josh"—which doesn't bother me so much b/c it's not about liking him, but about his complexity and change. But his noting the contrast with Nina is heartening.

Jim H. said...

You guys are the best. I'll post a further chapter anon.

Jim P said...


Just to be clear, I don't care if I don't like Josh(or Humbert Humbert or Stephen Deadalus or even Dexter). I don't dislike him, and I find his thoughts (i.e., your writing) worth following. But I had never had as much sympathy for him as I had reading Nina's responses.

As for the sine qua non, while neither of these people comes off as especially appealing, their situation , the sense of what the hell is going on with these two, is more than enough to make me want more.

Jim H. said...

@Jim P: How's that final chapter coming? If you want to send me something I'd be happy to look at it and comment. I'm assuming you're away in N.E. w/ the goats for the summer & I won't hear anything til you get back.

btw: My daughter told me one of her college friends had some piranha in his apt fish tank this year. Not sure how it all turned out. I could make inquiries.

Anonymous said...


I gots plenty thought on this, would rather ramble more privately on it. That post where I noted my agent... go there, email the agent, he'll reply with thoughts.

Like the tension setup but have ideas on what's revealed and what's hidden and how to reveal and how to hide.