The hardest thing about writing a novel is not knowing if my target audience, or anyone at all, would actually find it amusing. Originally I was going to self-publish Shizzle, Inc on this blog one chapter at a time, but not while I am hoping against all odds to get it traditionally published. In a desperate attempt to get feedback from someone other than friends and family, I even paid a professional at Writers Victoria to review the draft. To my surprise and delight, the anonymous reviewer found it funny. They also sandwiched in some constructive criticism, but that will be material for another post.
For now, I’d like to share with you a short story that started as a character development exercise for Shizzle, Inc. The story is set about five years before the novel starts and it introduces Isa and her family’s dynamics. I’d love to know what you think about it.
“Isabella? Is that you?”
I freeze, unable to say anything, or even think. Instead, I stare at his bedroom door, waiting for the door handle to turn.
“Isabella?” he says again. His voice is weak, but it resonates in the dead quiet of the house. “I need your help.”
I take a deep breath, let it out slowly, then turn the handle.
It’s dark, because the curtains have not been opened for days, and the last rays of daylight produce only a faint glow around the edges of old-fashioned heavy velvet. I shuffle towards the middle of the room, towards the greenish light of an alarm clock. I hold out my arms in hope of avoiding anything that could poke out an eye and, of course, bang my shin into the edge of the bed.
“Mother…!” I manage to catch myself just in time, finishing with a whisper of “Could I turn on a bedlight?”
He mumbles something that sounds like “If you must”.
I hold onto the edge of the mattress for reference and shuffle around it until I bang into the bedside table. This time I manage to keep quiet and pat the table until I find the lamp cord and the switch.
The light is weak, but he moans and turns his head away. I look down at him, waiting, but he does not move or say anything. He looks pale, like the sheets, and his matted hair is stuck to his forehead and temples. The room smells like sickness and old age. I try not to breathe.
Finally, he turns his head and looks at me. A weak smile is playing at the corners of his mouth.
“Yes, Dad. You said you need help?”
The smile fades. “Yes, but I’m afraid you can’t help me.”
“Oh,” I say. I hate to admit it, but I’m relieved. The fear that I will have to help him walk to the bathroom and wait outside the door, like yesterday, subsides.
“I’d like some water,” he says.
There is a full glass on the bedside table next to him. I pick it up and hand it over, but he just looks at me with that faint, pained smile, until I bring the glass to his lips and help him lift off the pillows. He drinks greedily, most of the water spilling down his chin, then falls back onto the pillows, exhausted. There is another moment of uncomfortable silence.
“Okay,” I finally say. “If that’s all, then I will get going. I will be back in a couple of hours…“
“Where are you going?” he asks, his voice quite a bit stronger. He must have really needed that water.
“Just to the movies, with girls,” I lie. I can’t quite tell him that I’m going on a date. Dad still thinks that dating should be reserved for college. I disagree, of course, and so does my older sister, who has never been to college and yet is currently in a hospital, trying to push out a couple of babies.
“The movies?” he asks and pauses for an effect. “You are leaving me here alone?”
“I thought you were asleep,” I lie again. “You need your rest, and I will only be a couple of…“
“I’m starving!” Dad announces. The illness has not affected his appetite, and ever since Mom practically moved into my sister’s hospital room, I’ve been required to serve full breakfasts, lunches and dinners, most of them in bed.
“But you just had pasta…“
“That was hardly a balanced meal,” he says, covering his eyes with a plump hand. “I need protein to repair tissues and help sustain my bodily functions.”
“It had cheese…“
He peeks at me from behind the hand, his gaze permeated with hurt feelings. “What I really need right now is chicken protein, preferably in a form of a chicken soup with vegetables! The vegetables would provide the antioxidants I so desperately need to support my immune system.”
“No problem!” I say, trying to sound helpful and feeling guilty as hell. “I have a can of Campbell’s…“
“A can!” he says and lets the hand fall onto the pillow. His gaze directed to the ceiling, he asks nobody in particular, “Perhaps I have a bowel cancer, too? It must be the BPA levels in canned soup that left me unable to pass a stool since yesterday…“
“Okay!” I say and back out of the room. “I can make some soup from scratch, that’s no problem!”
In the kitchen, I empty two cans of Campbell’s chicken and vegetable soup into a pot, add a chunk of butter, and light up the stove. I open and close cupboards and bang pots and pans, as I dial Brad’s number. My hands are shaking. We’ve only been going out for a couple of weeks and tonight was going to be the third date, making it officially okay to let him put his hands under my shirt. Brad is the hottest guy on the football team, which makes him the hottest guy in school, and me the luckiest girl in the entire universe. I put the phone to my ear and listen to the beeps and the pounding of blood in my ears.
“Hello there,” he answers and I nearly burst into desperate tears.
“I’m so sorry,” I say. “I can’t go out tonight. My Dad is sick, and I thought I could sneak out, but he heard me, and he wants soup, but not from a can, and my sister is in a hospital, she is having twins, and Mom is with her, and I can’t go out. I’m so sorry!”
He doesn’t say anything for a second. “Brad?” I ask and take a breath, ready to explain the whole thing again.
“That’s okay,” he says.
“Really?” I nearly burst into tears again, the relieved kind.
“Yeah, I can wait,” he says. “I wouldn’t wait for anyone else, you know. But you are hot, babe.”
He’s never called me hot, or babe, before and my heart stops for a full second.
“Thanks,” I say. “Babe.”
I carry the pot of soup into Dad’s bedroom. He looks suspiciously at me as I ladle a bowl for him. I help prop him up with pillows and watch as he brings a shaky spoon up to his mouth.
“This is good,” he says approvingly. “Not like that canned crap.”
He asks for a second helping and then I carry the pot and bowl back into the kitchen. I dial Mom’s number, but it goes to voicemail. I think for a second, shrug, and dial Felicity’s number. It goes to voicemail, too, which is to be expected, I guess. She is probably all drugged up on an epidural or something, anyway.
I turn on the TV, but there is nothing even half-decent, which is really off-pissing on a Saturday night. Whoever comes up with a TV schedule must assume that people either have plans or paid channels. I, of course, have neither. Mindlessly flipping through ancient movies and infomercials, I wonder how long I can bear being alone with Dad and his mystery illness. It came on gradually over many months, starting around the time my sister announced that she is pregnant. It was right before her graduation, but when it turned out that her highschool sweetheart Mark knocked her up, Dad didn’t have the strength to kill him, despite many earlier promises to do so. Dad went to the graduation, but complained a lot more than usual, although I’m not sure if others noticed. Felicity was too happy to notice anything, glowing from either the pregnancy hormones or the wedding plans. She married Mark, despite Dad’s rumbles of “over my dead body”. He didn’t die, but started growing weaker every day, missed work, had trouble walking up the stairs and often paused to grasp at the left side of his chest. When Felicity told us that she was having twins, Dad announced that his pulmonary artery was on the verge of collapsing. Mom begged him to go to a hospital, but he refused, on the grounds that doctors are charlatans and hospitals are hotbeds of new and deadly bacteria.
Eventually Mom stopped begging, probably because she was too distracted by the excitement of getting not one, but two grandchildren, and by the constant need to remind Felicity of what to eat and what to do. When Felicity checked into the hospital at around the eighth month of the pregnancy, it was probably to get away from Mom, rather than to have her blood pressure monitored. Of course it didn’t work, because Mom never left her hospital room. Upon hearing of that development, Dad announced that his liver has joined the ranks of the defiant organs. He explained over and over again, usually during dinner, how the toxic waste accumulating in his blood stream was slowly destroying him from inside out, and what his liver probably looked like at that stage. Then finally, when Felicity went into labour three days ago, Dad refused to get out of the bed.
I was alone with him, and also alone with the crazy thought that maybe he was faking it. I could not say it to anyone, leave alone constantly weeping Mom, but it was there, in the back of my mind. It was in fleeting moments of anger at being involved in his bodily functions, in long stretches of wishful thinking that he will be okay, that my sister and her yet unborn twins will be okay, and in constant selfish wishes that I will be okay. It was all too much at the time when adolescent depression was ready to sink its claws into my teenage body.
A raspy cough interrupts my thoughts. Dad is in the doorway, leaning heavily on the frame and blinking at the light.
“Dad!” I jump up from the couch. “What are you doing up?”
“I tried to call for you,” he whispers. “I guess you didn’t hear me over the TV.”
I help him back into bed, choking with guilt over my previous thoughts. He looks old and defeated, not at all his usual fieldmarshal self. I can’t believe I could ever think that he is faking it, he probably is dying. I can feel the tears welling up in my eyes, and I swallow to hide them. They taste like remorse with a touch of love.
When I’m finished re-arranging the pillows and refilling his water glass, he pats the side of the bed for me to sit down. I perch on the edge, feeling very uncomfortable and using all my psychic powers to will Mom into coming back and relieving me from this duty.
“Isabella,” he says. He started calling me by my full name lately, which is not a good sign. When things are good, I’m usually “Isa”. “Isabella” is reserved for lecturing me about my poor grades, or attitude, or lack of common sense, and I honestly have not done anything wrong lately, except maybe dating Brad behind Dad’s back.
“Isabella,” he says again and takes my hand. This is excruciating. He is not a touchy-feely person and I can’t remember the last time I got a hug from him. This holding-hands-on-a-deathbed is worse than even waiting for him outside the bathroom door.
“I have to tell you something,” he croaks. I can’t help but brighten up. I’ve always hoped that I have some kind of a birth secret, like I’m actually related to royalty and will one day be shipped overseas to take my rightful place on the throne. The deathbed is a perfect place to spring that kind of news on a teenage girl.
“Your maternal grandfather,” he begins, and I nearly faint. This is it! I always knew I was special, not the learning-disabled kind, but the psychic, or magical, or at least royal blood sort. I grip Dad’s hand, and he takes it as a sign of encouragement.
“He didn’t like me from the start, you know? I was too young, too poor, and too skinny for his Princess.”
His voice sounds as if from afar. My head is swimming with royal images: kings and princes staring at me with admiration; walking through an endless cathedral isle, with an equally endless train behind me; a heavy crown being placed on my chastely bowed head.
“He said that I would never amount to anything. ‘Over my dead body’ is what he said when I asked for your mother’s hand in marriage. Thankfully, your mother had a lot more sense than him, although lately I’m not so sure. ‘Over my dead body’! I showed him, of course. I am a well-respected historian, as you know, and he always was, and remained to the last day, a car mechanic.”
The images in my head disappear, as if blown aside by a cold gust of reality.
“That’s right, a car mechanic! Sure, he maybe owned the shop and made a lot of money, but it didn’t change the fact that his nature, his very essence was that of a tinkerer! He tinkered with car parts, which required no original thought, no analysis or theory! In a way he was like one of those doctors your mother insists on, the simpletons barely able to look up symptoms in a reference manual!”
A heavy cloud fogs up my brain, as I realise that this is no deathbed revelation, that this is the same story I’ve heard at least a hundred times. I can’t tell him that, of course, just in case he is dying and this is the last time I’m hearing it. The combination of disappointment and guilt is overwhelming and I look down in hopes that he will not see it in my eyes. He doesn’t, of course, and keeps going on and on about Grandpa.
Thankfully, the phone rings in my pocket and I answer it despite Dad’s protests. It’s Mom and she is crying. For a second another image, of my dead sister, enters my head, but then Mom starts screaming, “Boys! Boys!”
“What?” My first thought is that she somehow found out about my dating, although I’m dating only one boy. Mom explains that Felicity just had two boys and that I’m now a fifteen-year old auntie.
“Wow,” is all I can manage to say, over and over. I mouth “two boys” to Dad, who seems to be either pouting or smiling that sad smile again. Mom passes the phone to Felicity, who sounds tired and groggy, just like I’d imagined.
“Congratulations!” I exclaim and inwardly congratulate myself on coming up with something appropriate to say.
“Thanks,” she says. “Boy, I’m glad it’s two of them, because I’m never doing this again!”
I laugh hysterically and she asks when I’m coming to see them.
“I don’t know, Dad has taken a turn for the worse,” I say and Dad nods in approval. “Maybe when Mom is back home?” I look at Dad and he nods again.
“When is he coming to see them?” Felicity asks and suddenly she doesn’t sound groggy at all.
“I don’t know, talk to him,” I say and pass the phone to Dad, who looks at it as if it’s a bomb, but takes it and holds it to his ear.
Dad starts saying his version of congratulations into the phone, but Felicity cuts him off. I can’t hear what she is saying, other than it sounds like barking. Whatever it is, it has a magical healing effect on Dad. Color returns to his cheeks and he even sits up in bed.
“I’m not…“ he says, but the barking does not stop. I can only hear his side of the conversation, and it sounds like a defendant trying to appease Judge Judy. The color in his cheeks turns from peachy pink to beetroot red.
“You don’t understand…“
“Of course I do!”
Finally the barking stops. Dad takes the phone away from his ear and looks at it for a moment, then pushes a button and hands it back to me. I stare at him.
“We are going to the hospital,” he says finally.
“Oh my God!” I freak out with realisation that the news must have pushed his liver over the edge. “I can’t drive! We have to call you an ambulance! Can you wait for an ambulance?”
“Not for me,” he waves me off and pushes the comforter away. “Let’s go see the babies.”
“But…what about your condition?”
He ignores me and swings his legs down, searching for slippers with his feet. His face is contorted in a deep thought.
“I still can’t drive…we can call a taxi, I guess…”
“I’m not paying for a taxi,” he says and shuffles towards the wardrobe.
I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing, just follow his lead. When fifteen minutes later we get into the station wagon, the color in his face is back to peachy pink and he almost looks healthy. We drive through the dark streets in complete silence.
“Grandpa,” he says.
Not again. “I know, he was a car mechanic and he didn’t want you to marry Mom…“
“No, I mean me. I’m a grandpa. A bit early, if you ask me.”
I laugh from surprise and relief. “Tell me about it. I’m an auntie at fifteen! I’ve never even babysat! I’m probably going to drop one of the boys and Felicity will have to kill me…”
“Nah,” he says, and smiles. This one is good, a hearty full smile. “You’ll be great.”
“Really? You think so?”
“For sure. You are good at so many things.” He doesn’t say what they are and I hope that he is not thinking that lying is one of them. Still, it makes me feel warm inside, for the first time in weeks, if not months.
“Thanks,” I say. “You’ll be a great grandpa. I mean, you will be great at being a grandpa, not that you will be a great grandpa. I mean, one day, you will live to be a great grandpa. I hope.” I look at him, dreading his response, but he doesn’t look back. Only the hearty full smile is still there.
“For sure,” he says and we keep on driving through the dark.