Turning to Dust? Or Is It Just a Too Long Winter?

I just finished a wonderful, sad book called The Door, by Magda Szabo.  In the end, an old woman’s long-cached hoard of furniture disintegrates at a touch–worms had been eating at the wood for years.

So, when a week of negative events rolled out for me, all I could think was “Everything I touch is turning to dust.” I love the book. I do not feel the same way about this week. It began when I couldn’t make Word come up on my computer.  This was after I had tried to install an app and got the message that my computer was too old for what I was trying to do. I know about being too old, but I didn’t realize it also  happened to electronic devices like my Mac.

I called for help, and an accented, but understandable, young man listened and advised me to change to the most recent Mac version. “Free, Ma’am,” he said. I punched a few keys, and sat for many minutes while the new thing, Sierra Whatever, was being installed. The next day I sat for three hours while another young man in the Philippines wandered around with his cursor in my computer. Word came back but my desktop was a foreign territory. My folders looked as if I had thrown them across the computer, willy-nilly.  A list of “Help” items appeared for a short while, and somehow I erased it. I okayed a bill for $69.00 for something I cannot remember. I did not touch my Mac for a day, afraid what would crumble next.

In past weeks, in a spurt of creative energy, I had ordered four new pillows for our gray sofa, all patterned but all gray. I was going modern, mono-color, which was cheaper than buying a new sofa. They arrived separately, and I tore open the Fed Ex bags one at a time. Yes, they were all gray, but four different kinds of gray, none the right gray. “I guess maybe buyjng from catalogues is not the thing to do for pillows,” Don commented.  “T-shirts, maybe, but not gray pillows.” He said this as he walked out the door with the last bundle to be returned to the Fed Ex store down the street. He was trying to be kind. I was tearing up with frustration and he was close to laughing.

But he brought home a pizza, half-baked, and said he’d heat it up. When the ten minutes were up, he opened the oven door, tried to slip something under the pie, and swore.  The pizza had crumbled, like Szabos’ furniture, and was stuck onto three different very hot surfaces. This morning I tried using the cleaning button on the cheezy lumps in the oven, and fifteen minutes later the fire alarm beeped loudly and continuously until we opened windows and doors, which is not a good thing since we live in a condo with many neighbors within earshot and smellshot.

The smoke cleared. I went my revived computer, and two rejections for a novel I had hopes for waited for me. I don’t cry about rejections.  I swear, a habit I blame on the pizza destroyer.

The doors to the terrace were still open and I went to close them, the furnace going crazy trying to get to 70 degrees in the 40-degree sunless afternoon that had crept in under the smoke. My winter pots with their black, dissolving geraniums cringed at me from their posts along the metal railing. But in each pot, spikes and flops of green peeked out above dirt still wet from the latest rain storm. My bulbs, forgotten for a year, hiding under dead geraniums and the roots of fermenting annuals, greeted me, were telling me that I needed to take courage, stop swearing, smile. And to send out more queries, like hopeful green leaves. “Spring is coming,” they assured me.


For a minute I felt a little like Lana Turner must have felt as she sipped her Coke at a Hollywood drugstore counter and heard the guy sitting next to her say, “Would you like to be in movies?” I’m guessing she turned, smiled brightly, said “Yes,” as he took her by the hand and led her away to fame.
I sat in a wicker chair, so dry-mouthed I had to force my lips to open. No drugstore, only the Pacific mumbling below us. “I like the sound of your story.  Will you send me the manuscript?” I licked my mouth, tried to curve it into a smile. “Yes.” The NY agent walked me to the door and into a life of fame. But first I had to find a glass of wine or at least a Coke so that I could celebrate, tell the news to my friend.
We had spent the day at a writers’ workshop listening to a speaker tell us how we should write our next novels. I fidgeted. I couldn’t relate. I had finished my next novel and I had paid the fee to pitch it to the guest agent. I waited two sweat-palmed hours for my fifteen minutes with her and with destiny. “Send me the manuscript,” made the year of writing, the long workshop, the wet hands, the dry mouth all worth while.
I went over each page one more time, incorporated some of the changes one of my Beta readers had suggested, and created a title. The Long Road, I decided late one night. Done. Punched “Send” and flung my book into the world. Then I waited for fame––or at least a response from the pleasant young woman who had nodded through my halting synopsis in that ocean-fringed room.
“We get three hundred queries a week,” she had warned. Then she added, “We are a small agency. We bring out about four or five books a year.” For days I tried not to think of the odds. I went for walks, drank a little too much white wine, was so crabby that my husband escaped regularly to the bakery down the street for a little peace and his New York Times.
On the tenth day, I opened my emails and her name appeared.
It was not a standard everyday rejection. She referred to the great weekend at the beach. She had read The Long Road, liked it, but. . . “But I’m afraid that I just didn’t get that breathless sense of connection while reading your pages, and that’s the kind of enthusiasm that I need to summon when I decide to go to bat for a book.”
Fair enough. I know about that breathless sense of connection. I’ve experienced it in books I’ve read and loved, the ones I wished I’d written. Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf, the first half of Penelope Lively’s bio Dancing Fish and Ammonites, come to mind. These stories are my kind of stories, about the lives of older women. Perhaps I’d do better with an agent over sixty instead of a smiling twenty-something.
But I’m questioning whether I’m brave enough to risk further attempts to find an agent. Or tenacious enough for more rewrites of The Long Road, breathless connections in mind. When I decide,  I’ll have my summer’s work laid out.

Wise Words from a Couple of Old Women and a Young One

My grand daughter is learning to make mac and cheese the old fashioned way. She stands next to me on her cooking stepstool and lets out not one but three gigantic groans as she stirs the white sauce.

“It takes a while to thicken, but keep stirring,” I advise, first making sure it is impatience and  not pain that has prompted her misery.  “A watched pot doesn’t boil,”  I add, feeling very old and wise.

Later, after the mac and cheese, she turns the table on me.  I am doing some groaning of my own.  I have sent out five query letters inviting agents to take a look at Graffiti Grandma.  No response after two weeks, despite my hourly checking of my email.  “Patience is a virtue,” Hannah says. “Remember?”

The thing is, although I know that some agents get a thousand queries a month and maybe ask for pages from three of those queries, and although the books advise submitting writers to make their queries so intriguing from the first word on that an agent’s finger will tremble as he/she reaches for the Send the Manuscript button, with the hope that he/she will be the first to read the whole thing–although all that, my response to Hannah is “I remember.  And hope springs eternal, you know.”

But I do have a vision of my selected agents glancing at the first word, or even the subject bar, and bringing a whole fist down on the Reject button.  “I’m sorry, I did not fall in love with your novel,” or the alternative,  “We just aren’t the right agency for you,”  automatically appear on my screen. Three  seconds it takes to squash a hope.

But the springing part turns out to be true.  Rejection #l.  After a dark moment, a little green blade of hope pops up and cheers me. I still have four queries out there. Who knows?  The Help had fifty rejections before an agent said yes.  Also,  I have a list of four hundred more agents.  All I have to do is live long enough to contact them all.

 Besides, a new story is percolating somewhere near my heart, making me wake up at night, dialogue from unknown characters ringing in my dreams.  Something about an old man in a wheel chair.

“Be up and be a’doing with a heart for any fate, still achieving, still pursuing, learn to labor and to wait.”  This time it’s my mother’s voice I hear.  I open a blank page, decide to do a little laboring while I wait.

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