Evolution of a Novel’s Open

Sometimes, a lot of times, actually, when you’re writing fiction–long or short, but especially long–it seems like no matter how much you write, you’re not writing the right thing. You’re writing yourself in circles, in fact, slowly driving yourself–and everyone around you, whether they signed up for this nor not, more likely the latter–bat-shit crazy.

Case in point: I recently spent upwards of three years writing a novel that, I don’t think, ever got into the right place. Or maybe it did at some point, but I still changed it, a word here, a sentence there, until I’d mangled it–or maybe, I don’t know, there was a progression, and what I ended up with was, in fact, better than how I began, in the beginning.

This is what I began with (after at least three dozen revisions, by the way):

It  was a fine spring morning, overcast and cold, but then every morning at Whistling Pines Senior Living Village was cold in one way or another. Bernard parked himself on a bench by the grease Dumpsters, too close to the security cameras for comfort. At Whistling Pines, someone was always watching, and even if he hadn’t triggered the motion-detector flood lights he had plenty of reason to worry. You couldn’t venture off-campus unsupervised without special permission and that meant paperwork and Bernard didn’t have time for that, not today. Today he’d need every extra second, and according to the clock at the Lutheran church across the street it was already a quarter to 4 am—still early, though you could never be too early. That, in any case, was how Bernard looked at it: the earlier he started, the sooner he’d get going.

That, at some point down the line, became this:

It was a fine spring morning, overcast and cold, but then every morning at Whistling Pines Senior Living Village was cold in one way or another. According to the clock at the Lutheran church across the street, it was a quarter past 3 am—early, certainly, but Bernard was on a big top secret mission and he didn’t want to waste any time. So if he was sitting on a bench out front wearing only a nylon anorak pullover, then he’d just have to make do with that, and that was OK with him, so long as he also had the Army-ordnance binoculars he’d used overseas during the war. And sure enough, there they were, slung from his neck, right where they were supposed to be. Just in case, he parked the ’nocs on the bridge of his nose and adjusted the scope, inadvertently zooming into a blurred nipple, part of the illuminated bus-stop ad for breast-cancer awareness. Even after all this time they worked great, and that was a huge relief, as was having Esmé’s old herringbone roll along suitcase, currently nestled between his legs, empty now but by this time tomorrow morning, who knew, it could be full. That was how Bernard looked at it, in any case: you never know when a little extra space might come in handy.

Which, in turn, became

It was a fine spring morning, overcast and cold. Then again, every morning at Whistling Pines Senior Living Village was cold in one way or another.

Bernard parked himself on a bench by the grease Dumpsters, too close to the security cameras for comfort. At Whistling Pines, someone was always watching, and even if he hadn’t triggered the motion-detector flood lights he had plenty of reason to worry. You couldn’t venture off-campus unsupervised without special permission and that meant paperwork and Bernard didn’t have time for that, not today. Today he’d need every extra second, and according to the clock at the Lutheran church across the street it was— It, actually, was too blurred to make out, so he set his old Army binoculars to his eyes and adjusted the scope: 0400 hours—still early, though you could never be too early. That, in any case, was how Bernard looked at it: the earlier he started, the sooner he’d get going.

Which then became

Their last morning together dawned overcast and cold. Then again, every morning at Whistling Pines Senior Living Village was cold in one way or another.

It’d been another long night and Bernard was glad to be outside in the brisk mid-March air, a welcomed change from their cramped corner unit, where he’d left Esmé. Heartlessly, he worried, not that there was anything he could do now that he was parked on a bench by the grease Dumpsters, too close to the security cameras for comfort.

At Whistling Pines, someone was always watching, and even if he hadn’t triggered the motion-detector flood lights as he slipped out the side employees-only entrance he had plenty of reason to worry. You couldn’t venture off-campus unsupervised without special permission and that meant paperwork and Bernard didn’t have time for that, not today. Today he’d need every extra second, and according to the clock at the Lutheran church across the street it was— It, actually, was too far away to make out, so he set his old Army binoculars to his eyes and adjusted the scope: 0400 hours, on the dot—early enough, though you could never be too early. That, in any case, was how Bernard looked at it: the earlier he started, the sooner he’d get going.

And then:

Their last morning together dawned overcast and cold. Then again, every morning at the Whistling Pines senior living complex was cold in one way or another.

Bernard parked himself around back, on a bench by the grease Dumpsters, too close to the security cameras for comfort. At Whistling Pines, someone was always watching, and although he’d so far avoided triggering the motion-detector flood lights, get caught venturing off-campus unsupervised and the punishment could be severe: revoked solarium privileges, or worse, a week-long ban from Egg Island.

The stench from the Dumpsters aside, he was happy to be out and about, even if all he had on was his Sit and Be Fit parka, a comfortable but ineffective shell against the gale-force wind coming off the staff parking lot. At least he’d made it out, and just in time, too. Any minute now, if not already, the alarm clocks would go off, and throughout Whistling Pines his fellow residents and in some cases friends would despite their various infirmities somehow athletically spring up from their hospice beds, strap themselves into their mobility scooters, and begin the complicated process of primping and preening for Prom Night, one of if not the highlight of the Whistling Pines social calendar, alongside opening day of the five-day Mah Jongg World Series—though to Bernard, Prom Night was nothing more than a pain in the neck.

On top of which, he’d stayed up late last night. And the night before that. And the night before that. In fact, every night since Esme’s third chemo cycle had started. Because she couldn’t sleep, therefore he couldn’t sleep. Usually, reading to her did the trick. So long as it wasn’t the funnies. The funnies were her reading material of choice, and they succeeded in distracting her from the chemo, though mostly because she devoted what little energy she had to coaxing him into a full-scale dramatic performance, replete with funny voices and cartoon genuflection. And since that only pepped her up (and him, too; seeing her pepped up pepped him up in turn), and since Dr. Gasson had laid down the law, and this time around, at least, Bernard intended to comply, he was left with less stimulating fare: last Sunday’s real estate supplement, on the surface a humdrum read but in the end he hammed it up and it knocked her right out, after a listing for a 3br/2ba single-family townhouse a block from the lake, perfect starter house for a young, motivated family or family-to-be. WIC to die for! Just in case, he forged on and finished the entire thing, having always liked snooping on other people’s lives, anyway. Then, in strict adherence to the doc’s orders, he retired to the pleather La-Z-Boy recliner, which he’d outfit with a seatbelt salvaged from their old Buick—the idea being, if he were strapped down, then he wouldn’t pace; and if he didn’t pace, then he wouldn’t wake her. In all, it was an eyesore, a ramshackle bit of engineering, especially considering his tenure in the R&D department at Midland Ferris Industries and before that the United States Army, Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC), 214th Detachment—but it curbed the pacing, if not the frenzied agonizing about the disappearance at sea.

Even now, hours later, outside and free to pace about at will, his mind still raced—not, however, through the dark alleys of what might or might not have happened to Franklin. Instead, why hadn’t he taken the time, this morning, to nuke a Hungry-Man Salisbury steak? The cafeteria wasn’t open, and with Prom Night preparations already underway, who knew if it would open at all today. And Bernard’s stomach was growling, meaning that in a half hour he’d start to feel faint. Some mornings, when he felt adventurous, he hiked over to DonutWorld. Of all the plentiful fast-food establishments in the mega mall by the commuter train station, DonutWorld was the best bet, hands down—and Bernard, a breakfast aficionado, had done an extensive taste test. Best of all, DonutWorld was open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Then there were DonutWorld’s French crullers, a smidge heavy on the icing but who didn’t like icing? Top that with a hot cup of Sanka, and Bernard would be good to go.

But then what? Spend the rest of the afternoon at the mega mall, waiting for Prom Night to wind down? How would he know it had winded down? Even if he’d remembered to bring his portable gizmo, odds were Esme wouldn’t answer the phone—couldn’t answer the phone; and if he called the switchboard, he may as well turn himself in and face the consequences of going AWOL. And what about Esme? She’d wonder where he’d gone off to, and why, and what had she done to cause him to leave; and when he’d explain that he was on a mission to find her a special surprise, and that he couldn’t tell her, she’d look at him with her sad, disappointed eyes, and maybe cry—to the bedridden, a trip to the mega mall was exotic and exciting, on par with a romantic weekend in Paris.

And what time was it, anyway? He couldn’t stay out back by the grease Dumpsters all day. Sooner or later, one of the security guards, in the middle of his or her morning rounds, would spot Bernard and approach and question him on the spot. Why aren’t you inside? Don’t you like Prom Night? Everyone likes Prom Night! And because no excuse would be a good excuse—it was Prom Night, after all; nothing else mattered—his best bet was to get a move on. Not that he had anywhere to go, now that his and Esme’s old bungalow, located in the sprawling and, of late, sought-after Springfield Creek Estates subdivision, had sold last month.

If Bernard had his wristwatch with him, if he hadn’t second-day-mailed it to himself for his birthday, which in fact was months from now, not today, then he wouldn’t have to resort to his trustworthy old Army binoculars, which were still slung from his neck, right where he’d left them. According the illuminated temp/time clock at the Lutheran church across the street it was 28 degrees Fahrenheit and 0500 hours—early enough, though you could never be too early. That, at least, was how Bernard liked to look at it: the earlier you started, the sooner you got going.

And, finally, finally…

Something else he had been meaning to tell her? He loved her hair. Not at first, or rather, he had always thought she had attractive, full-bodied hair. But one day, the day Franklin was born, in fact, when he walked in and saw her holding their first child, he noticed, as if struck by some metaphorical lightning, that she had the most astonishing hair. From then on, he monitored her management of her hair, which he found, without fail, to be aggressive and resourceful. One day she wore it pinned in a stately updo, and it was lovely. The next day she had bound it back, cinched with a ribbon, and it was lovely then, too. He particularly liked it when she did very little to it, when she let it go about its natural, unruly self. He had been her TA in Fundamental Mathematics, and he had noticed her hair at the time, and here he was sixty-eight years, two children, one grandchild later, alone, it occurred to him, from here on out, and he wished he had appreciated her hair more. What was it about her hair, exactly? He was sitting, opposite her, in the pleather recliner she insisted not be moved to their assisted-living place and he had no idea why, all this time, he had neglected to tell her he was fascinated by her hair. Once, at someone’s wedding or funeral, he couldn’t recall, he noticed that she had, all of a sudden, gone gray, and it was the most incredible thing. She, as was her pleasure, spent hundreds of dollars coloring it back to its youthful shade of chestnut, and now he wished he had told her how viscerally he had loved the gray of her old age. There were other things he had loved about her, and other things he wished he had told her with more frequency, of course: her laugh, how kind and even-tempered she had remained during the raising of their children, how little she had complained about her cancer. But now that she was gone, the one thing he wished he had told her more often was that she had, he’d always thought, the most beautiful hair.

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