Wrestling with a Rogue Sentence

Recently, I participated in a flash-fiction writing workshop that ran for three weeks. Each week, the workshop participants were assigned to a new instructor and small group. Each instructor gave the participant groups a daily theme, readings, and a writing assignment. We could share our work within our small groups and hand in one assignment draft to our instructor for feedback at the end of each week.

Now, I’m revisiting each story I generated, taking a fresh look at what I produced. There’s often a great discrepancy between my excitement for a new story and how exciting the first draft actually reads a few weeks later.

Last night, I revisited one of the first drafts from the workshop. I recalled patting myself on the back for such a “tight” draft, writing that wouldn’t need too much “polish” to finish. Wrong. I had a story with too many complexities for its size. My main character struggled with two external conflicts and two internal conflicts. One particular line within the story generated positive feedback from my workshop group, which made it feel vital to the piece. Wrong again. It happened to be the one sentence that introduced the character’s second internal conflict—that one complexity too many. Because the sentence had generated positive attention, I tried reworking the story to fit it and ended up running the story right off of its tracks.

Identifying the rogue sentence, a “darling” that has to go.

There’s a trick to know when a sentence jumps out because it’s key to the story’s intent or because it’s rogue.

If you’ve ever been advised to “cut your darlings” and not really understood what a “darling” is, think of this kind of situation: a strong, but rogue, sentence, a sentence that introduces a complexity the story doesn’t have the capacity to fulfil or a level of lyricism or description that feels out of sync with its surrounds. A “darling” may be a sentence you cannot believe you came up with. You may feel unwilling to admit the threat it poses, to pull your reader out of your story’s flow, away from your story’s intent.

I ended up cutting the sentence because it led my reader out of the story that wanted to emerge. Stories can do that, tell you what they want to be about, but you’ve got to be willing to listen. Listen, and sacrifice what you want for what the story wants.

For the time being, I’ve set aside my rogue sentence. Actually, it might make the first sentence of a new story. And I like that idea.

Do you have a “darling” tale? Or a story that isn’t quite coming together? Could there be a “darling” at fault? A sentence that introduces unnecessary complexity or shifts narrative style?

I’d love to hear your story about wrestling with the rogue.

Mid-Month Surprise Reveal

So, we’re halfway through January! Time for the surprise I promised. What I have in mind is to share and discuss a story each month. I’ll start with a piece of flash fiction, “Quail,” by Vicki Xu and published by Split Lip Magazine.

“Quail” is set in a Chinese supermarket. Buried in its opening is a hint of a buried regret. Aunty Li, the story’s main character, has “learned to find comfort in” the jumbled Mandarin of Chinese expats living in America. But hearing a snatch of childhood dialect, pure in form, sets off lush, full-sensory memories, and in a moment, we see the contrasts between present and past, an artificial and a natural environment, that reveal the pretense of Aunty Li’s “comfort.” Set among “neat aisles,” where everything is compartmentalized, shelved, and far removed from its place of origins, Aunty Li’s separation from place, community, language, mother, daughter, and self is exposed. A quiet, unassuming moment feels volcanic, and we’re left imagining its seismic repercussions.

“Quail” perfectly illustrates flash fiction’s power of compression. Reading this precisely crafted moment set off seismic waves within me. Who doesn’t have, like Aunty Li, regrets in life? Our regrets might involve a relationship, a job, or the dull routines consuming our day-to-days. Consuming time itself. Perhaps we regret inaction or some bold move. Like Aunty Li, we might counter the stress of experiencing regret by creating a false sense of contentment and convincing ourselves that we find comfort within it.

Reading Vicki Xu’s “Quail,” what did you feel? Is there something in your life that could trigger a memory with the power to create seismic waves? Try to express that moment and imply its repercussions in fewer than 300 words.

Fly Like Evel Knievel

One time, years before I knew anything about physics, I was pedaling my bike down a sloping stretch of our suburban street and I saw a single brick lying on the pavement. Construction was ongoing in the neighborhood, and builders’ trucks shed things regularly, like ropes, a thermos, or a leather glove. I imagined hitting that brick and flying through the air a là Evel Knievel, the stunt motorcyclist shown on TV recently, jumping fifteen Ford Mustangs.

I pedaled faster, gaining speed, and a roaring crowd filled my ears. A news reporter narrated my approach moment by moment. I pedaled faster. Harder. To fly higher.

(Source: Davey Cooms, “CW Classics: The Sum of All Evel – First Look”, Cycle World, December 10, 2007. )

I hit the brick, and—yes!—I flew.

Oh boy, did I fly.

This is the beginning of story: in a familiar landscape, something is different. Oh, look! A brick. Add some form of what if to that difference and you take off. What if I hit that brick going full speed on my bike?

I will fly.

A familiar landscape can be just about anything, particular or abstract. The street you once lived on, live on now, or one you’ve been imagining and visiting since childhood. It can be memory evoked. Kept it simple or add layers of complexity. Here I am, an unremarkable Caucasian woman in her sixties, walking down a busy street in Zurich, Switzerland, thinking random thoughts in Swiss-German, when I smell steaming white rice. Fresh pineapple hits a wok sizzling with garlic, onions, and pork. Time and place shift. I’m twelve years old, in the center of Tainan, Taiwan, surrounded by the buzz and horns of local traffic and conversations in Taiwanese. A dog barks. A street vendor scrapes a wok with a metal spatula. The wok releases the scents of garlic, onions, pork, and carmaelizing pineapple. What if that vendor opens a rice cooker, fragrant steam escaping, and a kernel of rice screams for help?

(Source: David Ashdown/Keystone/Getty Images)

Remember that brick lying in the street? I was going Top Speed when I hit it. And sure enough, I flew.

Right. Over. My handlebars.

Is that a story? Not quite, right? But it’s change powerful enough to incite a story. Add layers of What ifs and see what happens:

What if a little girl’s boarding a school bus the day after she rode her bike into a brick? She’s sore and  ashamed of the Band-Aids covering her nose, upper lip, and chin. What if a boy on the bus sticks out a foot and trips her? Or what if she so enraged she beats up the mean boy? What if her class crush stops her instead, just before she trips? Or what if she falls on her wounded face and sees, huddled beneath the seats, a dog-faced creature with pointy ears and hair that grows like a flame from the top of its head? She smiles and feels herself immediately transformed and transported . . .

Take an event from your childhood. Add layers of what ifs and see where they might lead you.

Making Plans

Reading lit mags is a great way to spend time in the sun.

Several years ago, the Switzerland-based novelist and translator Michelle Bailat-Jones offered an in-person novel-writing course in Lausanne, on the Lake of Geneva. Participating would have meant a six-hour commute to each session. For six months. I just couldn’t swing it. When she offered a weekend writers getaway, I immediately booked myself a round-trip train ticket and two nights in a quirky hotel close to Lausanne’s main station.

On that retreat, I met a great group of writers and read excerpts from brilliant works-in-progress. Michelle gave tips, support, and resonating feedback. As we packed up to head home, she asked a parting question: “What are your writing plans for the year?” Thunder roiled, but no lightning struck: I didn’t have plan: Why didn’t I have a plan?

My long train ride home gave me time to think. I should have a plan. I already practiced two beneficial writing habits, showing up to my desk every weekday morning at five o’clock and writing flash fiction.

Getting up early gives me two hours of quiet before the house wakes up, before it’s time to get ready for work. Okay, weekends, I sleep in. Until six. (What can I say? I’m a person who’s awake when she wakes up, and I generally stir—as in, Oh, boy! It’s morning!—between four-thirty and five.) I make myself a cup of coffee, and on winter mornings, I build a fire in our Kachelofen, the tiled stove.

At the time of the retreat, I’d only recently turned to writing flash fiction—as a craft exercise. Keeping works lean, purposeful. Cutting flabbiness. I’d keep my short pieces to five hundred words.

My new plan took form. Every day, I’d continue to show up. On Mondays, I’d submit two stories—longform or flash—to publications. Tuesdays, I’d research publications. It’s vital to find a good fit for what I do and how I do it. To seek a shared aesthetic. It’s also vital to know when publications accept submissions. Some have specific reading periods, which I now plug into my calendar along with word-count limits and site links. Wednesdays and Thursdays I’d write and/or edit. And Fridays I’d dedicate to flash fiction.

My list of publications has been growing because I joined that retreat. So, thanks, Michelle, I’m indebted to you! My plans are growing, too. They now include showing up on social media and keeping this website current. And as for my musing here, I’ve got a switch in mind.

Starting next year, I plan to focus on writing, processes, and techniques. What do you think? Care to join me? Do you have a topic you’d like see discussed—or one of my publications? Let me know. I’ve also got an idea for a mid-month bonus. But I’ll leave that for you to unpack in January.

Thank you for your visit. For joining my Meredith Writes journey. I wish you a joyful holiday season and an easy and safe slide into 2023. May your plans take root and yield great pleasures. And treasures.

Thanksgiving Abroad

The first Thanksgiving I spent abroad, we were living in Tainan, Taiwan, and I was eleven years old. My dad, career air force, commanded a military installation and coordinated with the American-trained Republic of China Air Force. At the time, Chiang Kai-shek was still alive and head of the Kuomintang, which ruled Taiwan. Martial Law—not that I was aware of it—prevailed. Two women worked for my mom, keeping us fed and our house in order. Both were Taiwanese, and both refused to work whenever my parents threw parties that included Chinese guests. The elder of the two, a woman who ask us to call her Ann, suggested that the Japanese occupants, pre-WWII, had been better liked than the Chinese.

Days before that first Thanksgiving on the island, we received the delivery of a turkey, a gift from one of the ROCAF generals Dad worked with. It was a live bird. Ann installed it in the large, screened-in porch above our carport. A sturdy and no-nonsense woman (“housegirl” to our elitist, expat community), Ann found my insistence on keeping the creature as a pet, laughable. She didn’t hide her contempt when I gave it a name. (Oh, I cannot tell you the many and frequent ways I earned her contempt.) “There’s no way we’re going to eat it,” I said. I was sure my mom would agree.

Dad knew turkeys well. “Dumbest creatures on the planet,” he’d say just about every Thanksgiving as Mom pulled a steaming, skin-crackling carcass out of the oven. During the Great Depression, his parents had raised turkeys for a little extra income and put him in charge of their keep. His experience, of course, was with the domesticated, white bird—quite unlike our scrawny porch guest with its long neck and brown feathers.

The day after the bird’s arrival, I rushed straight to the porch after school to find the space empty. “Where’s (bird’s name)?” I asked Ann, who’d followed me upstairs. She crossed her arms and said, “Your parents gave the turkey to Lee. He lives on a farm. The turkey is happy now. It lives in the country.” Lee was our gardener.

I’m sure I started to cry. I knew better than to believe the turkey would survive the chopping block.

On Thanksgiving, it was pure relief to see a fat Butterball turkey from the base commissary going into the oven.

Kaiserstuhl, Switzerland, twenty years later: Markus and I invited his family, thirteen adults and children to join us in giving thanks. Weeks earlier, I’d gone to the local butcher, located in a village a thirty-minute walk away, and asked if I could order a turkey. My request excited the butcher, a stylish man fashionably bespectacled; his wife, who worked alongside him, was equally stylish and fashionably bespectacled. “Of course!” he said. “When do you want to pick it up? It will be frozen, by the way. Is that okay?”

“No problem!” We agreed upon a date.

Because Thanksgiving isn’t a Swiss observance, there was no way to invite family over for a late Thursday afternoon meal; no one had the day off, so I scheduled a Saturday feast. There would be no (American) football to watch—actually, we didn’t own a TV, anyway—and I would be in charge of the whole meal. No one would be saying, “I’ll bring the mashed potatoes!,” “The broccoli in cheese sauce is on me!,” or “I make a killer pecan pie—my grandmother’s recipe. Interested?” Yes, yes, yes.

The butcher and his wife proudly presented me my frozen turkey. And, good grief, it was the real deal: a Butterball. I didn’t know it then, but it would be the last turkey I’d buy for my Thanksgivings abroad that included the giblets. Oh, how I’d plea for a neck and giblets to be included with all future, locally sourced birds; oh, every year’s disappointment. I quit buying birds from one farm because the farmer trimmed off the tail and all that flappy skin I needed to sew in my stuffing. I couldn’t convince the man to leave it on for me.

The Butterball purveyor, wrapping up my bird, said, “That’ll be two hundred and fifty Swiss francs, please.” In US dollars—I was still doing conversions in my head—my perfect turkey came in around $200.00. My knees buckled. Why hadn’t I asked the butcher how much he’d be charging me? What would Markus say to a bird worth its weight in gold?

He didn’t blink an eye, and a gorgeous, golden-brown bird came out of the oven. I presented it to the family Rockwellian style, placing it before Markus, seated at the head of the table. He stood, picked up the carving knife, and sawed off an entire leg. Holding it up, he said, “Who wants a leg?”

Well, how was he to know how to carve a bird in Thanksgiving style?

Thereafter, our Thanksgivings in Switzerland have been more international, with friends from the US, the UK, the Netherlands, Canada, Australia, Romania, and Switzerland. Some have grown up. Some have moved away. Some have passed away. We remain thankful for great meals, to have known those who are gone from our lives and those who continue to enrich them.

Polyglot Night

Looking down onto the house where Markus grew up, the Dumbach House and its attached barn, our rental, and the train crossing.

A summer night. The kids in bed. Our windows open. Lights dapple the pollarded chestnut trees of the Gartenwirtschaft across the street. Two teens occupy a bench at the train station visible from our living room window, and their conversation rises above the restaurant’s banter and laughter. The language they speak is Schwyzertüütsch, a Swiss-German dialect, lovely and lyrical.

A pollarded chestnut tree in Kaiserstuhl.

From her upstairs bedroom, our ten-year-old daughter shouts, “I can hear you!”

The teens immediately switch to French, which they learn in school.

It just so happens that we’ve only recently relocated here from a five-year stint in France, where our kids attended the local kindergarten and primary school. We had the chance to settle there but chose to return to Switzerland, to live close to my husband’s family. We’re renting next door to where my husband grew up. His parents live a block away, in a house they built after their retirement.

I go to the living room window and gesture to him to join me in eavesdropping on this exchange.

Our daughter usually falls asleep quickly, but within minutes of being asleep, she’ll be on her feet and sobbing, heading to the top of the stairs. One of us will always listen for her, fearful that she might trip over something or stumble down the stairs. One of us will go to her to offer comfort. We’ll lead her back to bed where she’ll promptly fall into a deep sleep that sees her through the night. Her two younger siblings, inured to this odd ritual, sleep on.

Recently, between hiccups of sobs, our sleepwalker expressed frustration about something being left undone. Without having any idea what it was, I said, “Oh, I finished that for you. Go to sleep, darling.”

“Really?” she said through sobbing hiccups, “It’s done?”

I said, “All done!”

Within days of this trick being employed, she stopped sleepwalking altogether; but that summer, her father and I were still habituated and attuned to listening for her somnambulate sobs and treads.

Fully awake now, though, she yells, “Je comprends français, aussi !

The teens on the platform exchange looks of astonishment, their mouths open. One whispers something, and the other says, considerably louder, “Okay, then. English.”

View to our old house from the train station.

It just so happens, I’m from the States. I speak North American English with the kids. I’ve learned Schwyzertüütsch and French, but my accent falls harsh on native speaker ears. While we still lived in France, our daughter told a plumber, “Maman parle anglais parce qu’elle est anglaise. Papa parle allemand parce qu’il est allemand. Je parle français parce que je suis français.” I laughed. Wrong on three accounts.

Upstairs, our daughter shouts, “And I speak English, too! So, shut up!”

One of the teens cries, “Who are you?”

Our daughter, now grown, lives in LA. On a recent visit, she says, “Here, I feel so American. But there, I’m so Swiss.”

“Don’t fly back home over Charles de Gaulle,” I say.

She laughs—indeed, she will be, and probably feeling totally French.

Hot Summers

To those acclimated to Swiss summers, temperatures pushing 85°F (29.5°C) feels scorching. Usually, we reach such temperatures around mid-July, suffering for a maximum of three weeks. Even at their peak days, they’ll drop significantly at night. And we sleep restfully in such a respite.

North of the Alps, Swiss houses aren’t equipped with air conditioning. At worst, we suffer. At best, we cope with floor fans. The stay-at-home Swiss (-German) generally close their windows and shutters against the heat, opening them when the air starts to cool.  They’ll complain bitterly about being stuck all day in a dark and stuffy house.

I used to argue with former work colleagues about how to respond to summer heat. Our office building had no air conditioning. In the mornings, we’d open the windows to air out the place. I’d insist on keeping some open all day to encourage air circulation, which I considered critical to staying comfortable. Sure, we’d sweat, but at least we wouldn’t suffocate. I also advocated for the purchase of fans. To zero effect. My coworkers—and everyone else in the company—shut the windows and shutters around ten o’clock to “keep in the cool air.” Miserable. When I bought myself a desk fan, my coworkers complained of the draft it caused.

When I was growing up in the US and elsewhere—in places like Texas, Arizona, North Carolina, Ohio, and even Taiwan—my parents didn’t consider the day hot until the mercury broke 100°F (37.7°C). I recall Mom claiming we’d catch cold if we went swimming before it reached 100°. They’d grown up in Central and West Texas. During a summer day—the heat lasting months rather than weeks—fans circulated the air around our house. In fact, the rumbling of fans felt as summery to me as bare feet, swimming lessons, and a fat watermelon chilling in a tub of ice.

While driving through the southwest deserts of the US, I introduced the kids to what travels had been like in the early 60s. No air conditioning: windows open. In the dry heat, we weren’t miserable until the mercury broke 107°F (41°C).

One summer in Switzerland, the temperatures weren’t dropping at night, and I longed for that childhood rumble and sweep of moving air. I bought a table fan and set it up in our room at bedtime. Markus said, “What’s this? That thing can’t run all night long.” On one hand, I can count the times he’s conceded that the fan’s hum and drift is easier to endure at night than any summer heat.

Nowadays, when I work alone in the house, two fans operate. One in the cellar pushes cool air up the stairwell, and an upstairs one keeps that cool air circulating. The temperatures broke 100° (37.7°C) this year. I cracked open a roof window, intending to create a chute to encourage the hot air to leave the house.

Did it work? Maybe.

But the buzzing fans readily returned me to a childhood sense of wellbeing. A great comfort.

The Unexpected

We’re in the dog days of a dry, dry summer. In late July, just after my birthday, we spent a week in the Alps where it’s cooler than in Kaiserstuhl. Much cooler. We returned to a desiccated lawn littered with brown and curled leaves fallen from the hazelnut and linden trees. We keep the rhododendrons and azaleas, along with my beds of wild strawberries, the roses, peonies, summer squash, calendula and snapdragons that are flowering, the cherry tree and red currant bush, and especially our newly planted fig tree, sufficiently watered. The rest of what remains green in our yard—the lavender, rosemary, sage, hibiscus, and table grapes—seems to have deep roots; our house sits on the edge of an aquifer.

When Markus was a boy, the fields between our town and the next village would flood in winter from the rising water table. When it froze, he and his friends would play hockey on the ice. These days, all the fields are too well drained to flood, and our kids never owned a pair of skates.

Before leaving for the Alps, I made a quick round of the blackberries I forage. They appeared to be ripening early. And I worried that I might miss them altogether while gone. Last year, due to our travels to the States, I’d missed the blackberry season. No pies. No crisps. No Muesli stained berry purple.

No fun.

Earlier this year, for the first time since discovering where the wild strawberries best grew, I skipped gleaning them. The plants that I had transferred to my own flowerbeds provide sufficient fruit to produce a supply of jam and sauce for scones, vanilla ice cream, and cheesecake—and bonus, I don’t have to worry about ticks as I harvest in my own garden. The wild white strawberries I transferred haven’t spread well enough to supply me with jars of jam. Some things take time to transfer and establish themselves. And the heat this summer is tough on my transplants. Luckily, I did start a home patch of the white berries when I did. The town landscaper has since turned his weed-eater onto the original patch, chopping away at least fifty percent of the fruit-bearing plants.

When I returned from the mountains, the fruit of the blackberry vines I’d scouted out before leaving resembled raisins. I harvested a total of three kilos from the patches that usually produce three kilos each. Nettles usually frustrate my work. Where the plumpest berries hang, the nettles usually grow vigorous and tall. This year, the nettles surviving are doing so by keeping close to the ground.

The air dry; the sun hot; sweat dripping down my face and the back of my knees; I retraced my steps, walking in the shade of deciduous trees. The leaves rustling sound like pouring grain. There are vines I leave for last. They grow along the shaded and blind edge of a Renaissance-type garden that belongs to a large villa on the outskirts of our town. In the best of years, they haven’t produced the best of berries, and the ditch they arc over is steeply sloped. At some point, someone hacked them back, filling the ditch with tentacles of slashed vines, the thorns made sharper by drying out. I’m always weary of making a wrong step and tumbling into the cruel cache of thorns.

Hardly worth the trouble picking them. My basket felt too light, but what could such vines produce in a dry year, anyway? How much weight would they add?

Yet I came upon the shaded and gently winding path of red gravel that lead to them. Too welcoming to pass by—especially as my walk home along the railroad tracks simmered under a glaring sun.

And what did I find? Vines thick with berries twice the size of what I’d already collected, their drupelets fat and glossy. Wholly unexpected. I quickly filled my basket. In this dry year, the renaissance garden is being well irrigated, and the vines have profited. And so, have I.

Too often, the places where we expect to find disappointment enchant us instead.

Monarch Story

A Gulf Fritillaries nectaring on a passionflower in Mom’s butterfly friendly garden in Central Texas.

In June, I flew home to visit my mom, brother, and sister-in-law, who all live in La Grande, Oregon. An unusually cool spring had produced an abundance of wildflowers. We went out to see the camas turning marshy fields periwinkle blue, the buttery-yellow lupines climbing up grassy slopes, and clusters of spotlight-yellow balsamroot, the “Oregon sunflower,” dotting pastures.

On the first warm, sunny day of my visit, Mom and I puttered about in her charming backyard, weeding and checking on her snow peas and raspberries. She had plans for landscaping her yard, to turn it into an oasis of native plants, especially those that attract butterflies, which got us talking about milkweeds and the monarchs.

Last year, Mom was still living in Central Texas where she’d had a butterfly garden. She’d grown up in Texas, moving about a bit, from Austin, where she was born, to College Station where her daddy did graduate work at Texas A&M, and then on to San Angelo and Fort Worth. “In San Angelo,” she said, “there was an empty lot close to our house that was covered with milkweed. When I walked through the lot, hundreds of monarchs would take flight.”

One day, when she was about seven, she noticed someone driving a tractor with a mower attachment onto the lot. “I ran home,” she said, “and shouted to my mother that the milkweeds and monarchs were in danger. Mother dropped everything and ran with me back to the lot, dragging along my little sister. We began collecting caterpillars and milkweed leaves as fast as we could.” The man on the tractor understood what they were doing. “He graciously cut his engine. And we collected all the caterpillars we could find, plenty of leaves to keep them fed, and dug up some milkweed, too, to replant in our garden.”

Within days, the caterpillars they’d collected and taken home reached the stage where they went crawl-about to pupate. “Soon, chrysalises covered our kitchen ceiling,” Mom said with a chuckle, “which didn’t please the woman who helped Mom around the house. She said ‘I’m not working for anybody who breeds worms! I quit!’”

Nowadays, more than ever, we need as many people as possible willing to stop mowers and breed “worms.” People willing to plant butterfly gardens and promote native plants.

Literary License

The University of Oregon novel-writing class with our instructor Ken Kesey. Photo credit: ©Brian Lanker.

Back in the 1980s, when I was a grad student living in Eugene, Oregon, I participated in a novel-writing course with Ken Kesey, author of several novels, including Sometimes a Great Notion and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He asked us to organize a reading in town for a visiting poet. The poet, an Australian, read his from work and Kesey read from Demon Box, his collection of essays and short stories.

One of Kesey’s pieces was set on his farm, where his son Jed was buried, the Merry Prankster bus Further sat in shocking decay in a marshy coppice, and where an unshorn sheep grazed—bringing the phrase “grass maggot” to mind. His story involved a butcher’s visit to the farm. I’d seen Kesey’s farm and cattle, and easily pictured their tansy-infested field. After the man had done his butchery, packed up, and left, the remaining cows gathered, so the story went, to encircle the bloodied tree where the ill-fated cow had been slaughtered.

Really? The story had me sitting straight up in my front-row seat.

Back when I’d still lived at home with my parents in rural Oregon, my bedroom window looked out over our horse pastures and those of our neighbor’s that adjoined them. He had cows that grazed alongside his horses. One day, a van drove to a cluster of trees close to the fence between our properties, our neighbor following on foot. The two men singled out a cow, roped it, and led it to a tree. The cow began to bellow. The others ignored it. The butcher hog-tied the bellowing animal, shot it, strung it up, and bled it out. The mobile butcher proceeded to gut and butcher the cow’s steaming carcass. He wrapped cuts of meat in white wax paper, and ground up pounds of trimmings and whatnot destined to be patted into burgers or cooked into spaghetti Bolonese.

The next day, some boys on the school bus bragged about getting ahold of the butchered cow’s head and leaving it in someone’s mailbox. Along our country roads, folks used barrels for receiving large packages. And surprises. The boys all had a good laugh imagining some poor soul fetching the mail and discovering a cow’s head staring blankly at them.

Those boys got ahold of that cow’s head repeatedly, depositing it in various barrels up and down our road over several weeks.

Imagine the state of that head over a length of time; I was sure glad we didn’t have a postal barrel.

What got me sitting rigid in my chair at Kesey’s reading was his description of his cows responding to the death of their herd mate. Having witnessed the butchering of our neighbor’s cow, it’d struck how unperturbed the other cows had been. Once their herd mate had been roped, they’d returned to grazing, looking as dumbly unconcerned by the cruel, cruel world as ever. And once the butcher had left the field? Did the herd gather in a circle around the bloody tree? Mourn the fallen?

No.

I went up to Kesey after his reading, and said, “About that butcher story and the cows gathering to grieve—”

Kesey’s deep chuckle didn’t let me finish. “Oh, that,” he said, his eyes curing up like an imp’s, “yeah. I’ve gotten a lot of grief over that piece.” He wrapped one of his beefy arms around me and pulled me closer to his barrel chest. I could smell peppermint schnapps on his breath. “Lots of folks call out the bullshit on that one.” More chuckles (the best sounding chuckles I’ve ever known). He fished his flask of schnapps out of his vest pocket and offered it to me. “Literary license, ya know?”

A photo I took of the People Magazine article about the novel-writing class that appeared in 1988.