Seth takes his daughter Kate to her first party since the treatments started. Though it's for a girl she doesn't know--Abby, the daughter of one of Seth's colleagues--Kate is all fluttering energy on the drive over. The intrathecal chemo has done its dirty work and the doctors have declared Kate in complete remission. Seth won't have to be such an obsessive blood watcher anymore. Upon Kate's request they removed the port, which had given them no end of trouble with infection. The bruised hole in her chest is healing nicely.
Seth was in his colleague Lisa's kitchen. They'd never been close. Until the birthday invitation, he'd only known her as Dr. Murray. This was the first time he'd called her Lisa; this was the first time he'd seen her in blue jeans--tight jeans that pressed her heavy butt cheeks together--and a t-shirt. She padded around the kitchen in her bare feet, working her daughter's party like a pro. The nails of her plump toes were painted burgundy.
She got beers for Seth and the other parent who stayed, Dr. Kim Stanley from Psychology, who had ruined her joints as a childhood gymnast, almost getting to the Olympics, and at thirty-eight walked with a cane. She wore her brown hair long and braided down her back. She had on a sixties-style peasant dress and a wooden bead necklace.
Making conversation, Seth said, “Did you hear John Updike died?” It had been on NPR on his way over.
“I read about it this morning,” Lisa said.
Kim Stanley said, “How old was he?”
The kids had rumbled back out to the backyard for the free play time between presents and cake. The smell of pizza and grassy, sweaty children still lingered in the bright kitchen.
Lisa leaned her wide hip against the cabinet and finished her Corona. She was only a little over five feet tall. Seth watched the lime wedge slide down the bottle neck and block the hole. He watched Lisa push the wedge with her tongue so the last of the beer could drain around it.
“He was seventy-something,” Seth said. “Seventy three, I think.”
“Young,” Lisa said. “Anymore, that's not so old.”
Seth and Dr. Kim Stanley nodded. Kim's rope of hair was on her chest. She grabbed it and flipped it behind her.
Behind Lisa on the counter were pink cellophane goody bags, lined up for distribution at the end of the party. Each bag was filled with dollar store crap: ersatz Barbie dolls with the bags cinched up under their armpits like bath towels, standing mid-thigh in candy and plastic trinkets. Whistles and necklaces and yellow rubber ducks no bigger than a thumb.
The conversation went from Updike to novels, to Pennsylvania and liberal Lutherans, to the recent spate of books by Atheists. Which brought to Seth's mind Antony Flew, who had backed off on his own Atheism a few years earlier.
Hollering and laughing, four girls and two boys burst through the kitchen door and pounded their feet down the hallway to Abby's bedroom.
Second in line, right behind the birthday girl, is his Katie, wearing her rainbow knit cap confidently over her bald head. Skinny and pale next to the others. But the energy level, god look at her go. She doesn't even glance up at him. He takes a long swig of beer to release the knot tightening in his chest.
The discussion continued, and revealed that Lisa was not only an Atheist herself, but the angry kind. She'd been raised Mormon, and was in a pitched letter-writing battle trying to get herself excommunicated. Her father was a well-known apologist in Mormon circles. She mentioned a book he'd written, and Seth remembered seeing a review of it in Harper's.
But he also remembered that the transition from her dad's review to the next was a sentence beginning, Speaking of frauds, so he didn't mention it. He knew she would agree that it was all bullshit, but he could tell by the fire in her moist eyes that it was all still too close to home. Best to leave that one alone. Instead, he offered his own revelation--it felt a little like admitting he'd been molested as a child: he had been raised, he told them, strict Fundamentalist Baptist.
“How old is Flew?” Kim asked. She put her beer on the counter half-full. It was clear she didn't want to finish it. She limped to a kitchen chair and sat. Seth thought she was probably distracted by her committee work, of which she was always taking on more than her share, to the detriment of her own teaching and research.
“He's getting up there,” Seth said. “He's older than Updike was, I think.”
Lisa said, “An old man decides to believe in God before he kicks off.”
She went to the refrigerator and got another beer.
She said, “Convenient, eh?”
She offered Seth another bottle. He accepted. She popped off the top and thumbed a lime wedge down into it and held it out to Seth, smiling flirtatiously.
He took it and sipped.
She poked a lime wedge into her beer and threw back a hearty three gulps. She didn't have anywhere to drive. She was relishing the adult company. Why not? Seth was enjoying it too.
“Flew's dad was a minister,” he said. “Methodist, I think.”
Music started up in Abby's room. Cuban rhythms, Seth thought, though he didn't know much about music. After a minute he recognized the band: Pink Martini, they were called. The kids' feet were rumbling the floor.
They are dancing back there. Kate is jumping around being a little girl.
Seth impulsively stepped over and hugged Lisa. He said, “Thanks for this.”
“No. Thank you for coming,” she said into his chest.
From the table Kim said, “An old Atheist decides to believe in God.” She raised her eyebrows at Seth. He couldn't tell if she was reacting to his hugging Lisa or what she was talking about.
He let go of the hug and stepped back from Lisa. His ears burned.
Kim said, “Does sound like a deathbed conversion.”
Seth nodded. “Sort of does.”
Lisa took a drink, wiped her mouth and said, “What a pussy.”
Kate comes home from school and gets right on her math homework. Then she writes her spelling words three times each in cursive and reads in her chapter book. After that she goes outside and rides her bike and plays on the swing set. Seth makes grilled chicken breast for dinner. He mixes yellow mustard two-to-one with honey for dipping sauce and Kate loves the stuff, wipes it off the plate and sucks her finger. He gives her a fruit cup with a dollop of whipped cream on top for desert. She plays more outside and comes in and has a bath all by herself. Seth only has to make sure she's rinsed off well.
Kate's medical manager Najua calls just to say again how proud she is of Kate's strength and bravery. During everything, Najua had consistently gone over and above with Katie. Seth had fallen in love with her. Though Najua is a beautiful woman, he knows his feelings were a reaction to seeing the woman take such good care of his girl.
Najua had been in the room one night and Kate had asked Seth if people went to heaven when they died. Seth hadn't hesitated to tell her yes, and to go on to say what he remembered from his childhood Sunday school lessons: heaven was a place of pure eternal happiness and joy, where no one suffered and no one got sick or hurt. He'd felt a twinge of guilt as he told his girl what he did not himself believe, but Najua smiled and nodded her reassurance that he was doing the right thing, her dark eyes moist and full of admiration. At the time, he'd taken it for more than that; he'd thought she might be falling for him too.
Najua is married and has children of her own. It had taken monumental self-control not to declare his feelings another night in the hospital while Kate slept. God, he's glad he didn't.
After the phone call it's bedtime. Kate asks if she can sleep in his bed with him but Seth tells her no. She's too old for that. She'd started sleeping with him when she came home during consolidation regimen.
But she's seven now and he knows she has to stop. They've had several bedtime spats and he's told her she's too old, which she doesn't buy. But tonight she accepts his answer without quarrel. She goes to her bed and falls into a happy, tired sleep.
Later, on his way to bed after grading papers for three hours, Seth sees her little leather sandals slung against the wall. Brown with three colorful flowers sewn to the top, they are her favorites. They bear the dark indentations of her heels.
He stops and swallows down the painful bubble rising in his chest; he takes four deep breaths and heads on to bed.
Seth's mom's voice said over the phone, “Charles Yates did business with the Lord yesterday in morning church. He's got stomach cancer, you know. It's bad.”
“I'd heard he had cancer,” Seth said. Seth was in his kitchen, opening a can of Campbell's tomato soup to go with the grilled cheese he was making for dinner. He was going to nuke a bag of frozen peas too, so Kate could get a green vegetable.
The only place he would have heard about Charles Yates was from his mom. He was her neighbor, had been all through Seth's childhood. Seth had played with his son Charlie. Old Charles was a rough man, proud and independent. He owned and drove a dump truck, hired himself out to local construction companies. Seth remembered hearing him say things like, asshole deep to a tall Indian, and, fuck him six ways to Sunday.
Charles's wife had always been a devout member of Seth's childhood church, Open Door Baptist. She'd sent men around over the years to witness to Charles and he always sat and talked to them, always his defiant glass of Wild Turkey 101 in his fist.
“Little Charlie got saved too,” Seth's mom said.
Out the kitchen window, Seth watches Kate play in the back yard. She has her cap pushed to the back of her head and she is gathering up sticks and piling them under the swing set. He can see her mouth moving: she is singing to herself.
“Charles didn't want to wait a single day,” his mom said, “so he had them cart him to the church last night and he was baptized.”
Katie starts leaning the sticks against the swing set's cross pole, making a lean-to. She tries to break a long branch on her knee, and then puts it on the cross pole and stomps the middle. The stick breaks and she stumbles but doesn't fall.
His mom said, “The whole family was there. Every one of them went up and made a decision for the Lord. Their girl, Candy. Do you remember Candy, Seth?”
Did he remember Candy. When he was eleven and Candy was in college, she'd been back home one weekend doing laundry. He'd been over there playing with Charlie. He'd run from upstairs and into the living room and been stopped like a deer in headlights by the sight of her on the edge of the couch holding up a pair of her lacy panties. She was watching a soap opera, staring at the television. A pile of her clothes, a stack of panties, was on the ottoman in front of her. Blood had rushed to his face and his pecker at the same time and he thought he could feel the house tilt as the earth spun.
She'd called him a little pervert and snapped her panties at him, laughing and shaking her head. She was the star of his adolescent fantasies for months after that.
“I remember her,” Seth said to his mom.
“She got saved too.”
What a spectacle that must have been, Seth thought. He remembered a scene from his childhood, a known reprobate from the community, Hobert Edwards, blubbering down the aisle to get saved, the whole church sparkling with nervous energy, women yanking tissues out of their purses and dabbing their crying eyes.
Seth's mom said, “I'm so happy for Mary. Her whole family's in the fold now. She's been a real prayer warrior for so long.”
Seth remembered old Charles Yates calling Frank Sanatra, Frank Notsohotra, though Seth didn't know who he was talking about at the time. He remembered hearing the man say, shit a brick sideways, and calling the new manager at the Super Value grocery store queer as a three dollar bill. Old Charles had a sure and correct opinion on every topic. He called his boy Charlie catbird and champ.
One day Seth had been over there helping Charlie stack firewood as his dad chopped it, and Mary Yates was bitching at him out the side door of the house, and she'd made some reference to God. Old Charles had mumbled, “I don't need no God telling me what to do.”
And now he was dying of stomach cancer and had gotten saved. Lisa's voice filled Seth's head: what a pussy.
That night Seth has a dream. He and Kate are lying on a grassy field, the grass is growing up around them, getting longer as they watch. It goes straight up until they're inside a hole, can only see a rectangle of starry sky. Seth can see the clear demarcation of a new moon. The grass flutters at the edges of the hole, and Seth realizes they're in a grave.
A man in baggy coveralls with muddy knees stands at the top of the hole looking down. He scratches his balls, then picks up a shovel and starts tossing dirt down on them. Kate is brave as always, hunkers down, tucks her chin without as much as a whimper when dirt hits her face. Seth's chest expands with pride.
He tries to tell Kate he's proud, but his mouth is suddenly full of gummy clay. He feels his body begin to harden. The calcium leaches from his bones into his flesh until he is made of one common brittle substance. He is packed in clay now, his teeth pull apart, spread like a cluster of pebbles. Roots as small as hairs tickle his cheeks, then press and coil and burrow into his skin. He can't move to stop them. His eyes collapse from the pressure and clay squishes into his skull like Play-Doh into a plastic mold. Everything goes black.
He wakes and thinks about the dream. It leads eventually to the memory of an illustration he'd heard more than once in Sunday school: A bird lives on the moon. Every one-thousand years this bird comes down to earth and pecks one sand grain from a rock the size of the Empire State Building. It gets one tiny grain and flies with it back to the moon. One thousand years later, it comes and gets another one. After that bird has moved that whole massive rock and made is a pile of sand on the moon, that would still not be equal to one second in eternity.
It's what his teachers used to get the kids to say the sinner's prayer. Who wants to be in a burning hell for that long? He'd done it. He'd gotten saved. More than once.
Seth is frightened. Not of death, he doesn't think--certainly not of eternal damnation, which he gave up along with the rest of his Baptist upbringing. Nonexistence is worse; the blackness, to Seth, is far worse than suffering. He wants Kate in bed with him. He wants to smell her stinky breath, the way it comes in little puffs when she sleeps, and feel her curled beside him. He lets himself cry. Puts his face in the pillow so he won't wake her.
Seth didn't tell Lisa about his dream, or the bird, as he walked with her to the cafeteria for lunch. He knew they were born directly from his recent rereading of “Pigeon Feathers.” After the man died, Seth had started reading back through the Updike on his shelves--he'd done the same thing with Saul Bellow upon his death a few years ago--starting with all four Rabbits, then reading A Month of Sundays, Of the Farm, Terrorist. He'd picked up a collection of essays called Hugging the Shore, and another novel, Marry Me, but hadn't gotten to them yet.
He talked to Lisa about Updike instead.
The collection of Updike's early stories of course had “Pigeon Feathers” in it. There's young David, admiring the feathers of a pigeon he'd shot, “robed in this certainty: that God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy his whole creation by refusing to let David live forever.” That's after his run in with Reverend Dobson, who tells him that eternal life is like Abraham Lincoln's goodness living on after him without his being aware of it. David gets to the heart of the matter with his mother. She tells him that Reverend Dobson made a mistake, and the boy yells at her, “It's not a question of his making a mistake. It's a question of dying and never moving or seeing or hearing anything ever again.”
They were in the salad bar line now. The baby spinach leaves weren't fresh.
Lisa said, “That kind of solipsism is forgivable in a fourteen-year-old boy, Seth.”
Seth dug the tongs deep into the spinach and turned it, unearthing a slimy clump. He said, “The staff is starting a compost heap in the spinach bowl.”
The cavernous cafeteria had just opened, and only a few early students were there, lined up at the waffle maker.
Lisa said, “To think the world ends when you die?”
“In a way it does.”
“No. Fourteen is even too old for that.”
Winter break was two days away and the students were excited and relieved. Two boys holding plastic cups horsed around at the soda machine like they were trying to throw one another in a pool. A large man stood behind the stir-fry center with his arms crossed and watched the kids file in, as if daring anyone to place an order. He had a hairnet over his ponytail. Beside his station three pizzas sat drying under the heat lamp.
“Everybody wants to live forever,” Seth said. He thought maybe he should have said nobody wants to die, but there was a difference between the two. Some zealots go lustily to their deaths with the hope of eternal bliss.
Lisa said, “I didn't take you for someone given to hasty generalizations.”
“Salad bar sucks today,” Seth said.
“I read an interesting questionnaire the other day,” she said. “Evangelical Christians put going to heaven at the top of their list of concerns, and Unitarians put it at the bottom.” Lisa had been visiting the Unitarian Church, she wanted a community to belong to. She liked the pastor, who was himself an Atheist. She said, “Seems kind of selfish to be mainly concerned with saving your own ass.”
Seth said, “Of course it's not going to be a priority if you don't even believe it exists.”
He grudgingly put a few pieces of rusty iceberg lettuce on his plate--crunchy water with no nutritional value--and then loaded up on shredded carrots and broccoli florets. The garbanzo beans were slimy too, which made Seth's chest swell with rage. He did some deep breathing, told himself not to let it ruin his afternoon.
“Community service was on the top of the Unitarian list.” Lisa scratched her nose gently with her pinky fingernail and smiled at Seth.
Seth thought of her plump painted toes. Of her nice big ass in those jeans.
He said, “If there's no heaven to go to, at least you can feel good about yourself right now.”
Lisa said, “You can take the boy out of the Baptist…” and shook her head.
Seth and Katie are in their driveway. Seth has loaded the entire shopping trip of plastic grocery bags on his wrists. His hands are turning purple as he lumbers down the drive like a pack mule. Behind him Kate starts wailing. He turns and sees she has lost her free Kroger balloon. It bounces up into the maple branches and stops for an instant, rolls around looking for another path to the open sky, stops again.
Seth kneels and works his hands from the handle loops and the bags spread across the driveway; two cans of beans and a jar of Ragu spaghetti sauce roll out of a bag to the edge of the yard. Seth runs and jumps at the long ribbon tied to the balloon. It is a good four feet above his highest jump.
“Get it, Daddy,” Kate cries.
“It's too high,” he says.
“You're a good jumper,” she says. “Jump higher.”
He jumps again and swats at the air. “See,” he says, “way too high.”
Kate starts crying again as the balloon twists again in a light breeze and works its way free and rises into the blue sky.
“That was my favorite balloon,” she wails.
“You just got the thing twenty minutes ago.” Seth still has to get dinner on. He has a two-inch stack of grading to do before morning. “Stop acting like a four-year-old.”
She cries and stares up at the balloon.
“Here's a game,” he says. “Let's see who can keep the balloon in sight for the longest.”
Kate stops crying and pushes her knit cap back on her forehead and stares harder at the balloon.
The red dot moves to the left, over houses and trees. It gets smaller and smaller. Seth tries to focus on the balloon, the vast sky all around pressing in on it.
He loses it first. He doesn't let her win on purpose.
She is delighted. She yells, “I beat daddy.” Her skin is flushed; she looks so healthy, so alive. Seth drops to his knees and takes her into a hug till she squirms to get away.
They gather up the groceries together and go inside and make spaghetti with sauce from the jar. She gives him a hard time about eating the green beans he's nuked, and he feels guilty right after he tells her she needs green vegetables to stay healthy. For Katie's desert, Seth pours mixed berries out of the freezer bag, nukes them soft and squirts on a fat curlicue of whipped cream.
Charles Yates died. The funeral was set for three days before Christmas. In order to attend it, Seth and Katie loaded the car and drove to his mom's in West Virginia a few days early.
At Hafer's Funeral Home, Seth looked down at the shriveled old skeleton, skin stiff across the bones like frozen tissue paper. Seth remembered that someone once told him that cadaver chests collapse so undertakers put shaped cardboard under the clothes to give the semblance that there is still air inside. Charles Yates's chest was high and boxy. Seth resisted the urge to pat the chest and find out. He hadn't seen the old guy in over fifteen years.
Seth greeted Charlie, who looked old and haggard, and Candy, who was fat and bore no resemblance to the sex pot of Seth's youthful dreams. He sat with his mom while the preacher spoke. He'd left Kate back at his mom's with one of her church friends. He felt bad for leaving her there with a stranger, even a sweet old lady, but there was no way in hell he was bringing her here. She'd lived enough of her short life in the shadow of death; she didn't need to go to the museum.
On the back of the funeral program was printed the boat story that Seth remembered from Baptist funerals he'd been to in his youth: A boat leaves the harbor. Loved ones stand and watch it sail. It gets smaller and smaller and eventually disappears into the horizon. Someone on the shore says, “There. It is gone.” But gone where? It is no smaller than it was. It is still afloat and sturdy and able to carry its cargo. It is not gone at all, only gone from us. Because, as soon as someone on this shore says, “There he is gone,” someone on a distant shore is shouting, “Look. Here he comes.”
Seth looked up from the funeral program. Charlie was bent over rubbing his head. Candy was crying and embracing her two daughters, pulling their heads to her breasts on either side.
Madness, Seth thought. What can any of it mean? His head spun, images howled high and empty through his skull--boats and oceans and sailors and birds on the moon, and a boat with a stiff skeleton on deck, a cardboard box over his sunken ribcage.
Seth couldn't get a hold on any one image, couldn't make anything cohere. He sat and stared at the preacher. He knew the sounds coming out of the man's mouth were words, but they seemed to split from their meaning as soon as they hit the air. They reached Seth as meaningless yelps and mumbles and barks.
Afterwards his mom said, “It was a beautiful service.” She said, “Pastor Jerry gave such a clear presentation of the gospel. That was important to the family.”
The night before his spring semester starts, Seth has another dream: He is on the bed staring up at the dark ceiling. His bed starts tilting as if he's drunk, but then he realizes it's not the bed moving. It's him. Seth is levitating. The ceiling tilts, the entire roof lifts from the house. It flips slowly and he floats up and out. Looking down as he rises, he sees the roof of his house fall into the backyard and spin like an amusement park ride that is over, turning ever more slowly but seeming never to finally just stop. He looks down on Katie in her bed. She is asleep.
The moon is full in a clear sky, its ranges and ridges blue. Seth floats toward it. He floats out of Earth's atmosphere and into space. No, he's not floating--he is the fixed point and everything else is moving. Earth curls away, grows smaller and smaller as other planets hurtle past Seth and arc off, growing smaller too. He is so big he could swallow them whole; he could flick them like tiny stones. His awareness expands until he can almost take it all in, endless space. He doesn't need air; he breaths with his eternal soul.
Earth becomes a blue dot. Seth watches the dot until it pops out of sight. Then he thinks of Kate in her bed in the house. She will wake and he won't be there. She'll be lost. Seth starts crying. His chest heaves. It hurts. He calls out into black space, no, no, no.
He yells out, “No,” into his room and wakes himself.
He is sweating and panting. Kate is there on his bed, sitting yoga-style looking at him. She has on her red flannel pajamas with a penguin in a blue scarf on the shirt and little matching scarved penguins all over the pants. She has her knit cap on. Sometimes she sleeps in it.
She says, “Bad dream, Daddy?”
“What are you doing?” he says.
She is warm against his leg. She's dribbled in her panties--the hot odor of urine mixes with the stink of her sleepy mouth. Without asking, she nestles under his covers and pulls her knees up to her chest.
Kierkegaard, in his book Purity of Heart--Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing--says only the Eternal is always appropriate and always present, is always true. The changeable exists and there is a time for everything, as the preacher says in Ecclesiastes, but the Eternal does not go infinitely back from the beginning of time, and pick up at the end of time to move into infinity future--Eternity is not temporal at all; it simply always is. It's been a long time since he read the little book. He's not sure if he's remembering correctly. He thinks he is. What it means is that if the Eternal is to be known by one whose time will pass, whose time is at every moment passing, it must be known in the present, in the moment, here, now.
Kate's breathing has fallen into a deep, sleeping rhythm. Her knit cap is over her ear. Seth stares at the little creature in his bed.
Seth dropped Katie off at his sisters, and then went and picked Lisa up for their date. He took her to a restaurant called dish, lowercase d, where they had small plates--mussels; a cheese sampler; the Mediterranean dish with homemade hummus and baba ghanoush, olives, more cheese, roasted red peppers, and a basket full of warm pita triangles. The waiter kept them supplied with baked-from-scratch rosemary bread with garlic-infused olive oil for dipping. They talked and listened to the mellow 70's rock playing, and had two glasses of wine apiece.
After dinner, Seth took her to see Revolutionary Road. Seth remembered liking the book. Lisa hadn't read it, and said she probably wouldn't after watching the movie. She said, “Hell of a movie to take a girl to on the first date.”
He hadn't thought of that. This was their first actual date.
“Might as well face the truth about marriage from the start, eh?”
He said, “Because you're such a romantic.”
“You picked the movie.” She took his hand as they walked to his car.
Lisa had a couple of hours before she had to let Abby's sitter go, so they went back to Seth's and had another glass of wine and then made out like teenagers on the couch. They eventually moved back to Seth's bedroom--he was suddenly struck by the clutter in the room, and the laundry piled inside his closet; he couldn't remember the last time he'd changed his sheets, and they were pulled off one corner exposing the old gray mattress.
She didn't seem to mind. She sat on the bed and pulled him down. They kissed and undressed one another--she helped him with her bra. She was soft, her skin smooth and flowery smelling. They made love and then lay drowsing in each other's arms. Seth's whole body felt melting numb. It had been too long.
As they gathered up their clothes and sat on the bed beside one another, Lisa said, “Look at that shit-eating grin.” She leaned over and kissed him. Her nipple pressed against his arm. Out of nowhere, she said, “You're a great daddy.”
He shrugged and said, “You do what you have to do.”
“That's not true,” she said. “You'd die for that girl. She's lucky.”
Of course he would die for her. “I would die for her every day if I had to,” he says. “In whatever painful way necessary. No. I would burn in hell if it would make Katie okay.” He doesn't have to think about it. “I would suffer eternal torment for that child.”
Lisa stands and leans over to swing her breasts into her bra cups. She says, “Well, if you do, you'd better spend every minute of it cursing a god who made such a thing necessary.”
He rises and embraces her. He is naked, she only has on her bra. The room smells of their sex. He says, “I'm falling in love.”
“Likewise,” she says.
They squeeze, then kiss, then silently finish dressing.
Seth takes Lisa home, and then picks up Kate from his sister's. His sister gives Kate a zip-lock freezer bag full of cookies and hugs her at the door. In the car, Kate does not mention his date with Abby's mom. She doesn't mention the appointment with her oncologist the next morning or the start of her maintenance regimen. She only talks about her evening with his sister. The two had watched Annie and baked chocolate chip cookies.
Kate holds up the bag and says, “Turns out, I'm a good cooker.”
The way she says it, simultaneously grown up and childlike, makes Seth start laughing. Then he can't stop laughing.
“What?” Kate asks. Again she says, “What?” But she starts laughing too, gets choked up until she's making little clucking sounds in her throat, she's laughing so hard.
As their laughing fit subsides, Seth thinks, I have had eternal life twice in one night.
Kate pushes her cap back, chuckles and sighs. They drive toward home.
I have two opposing bits of writing advice. The first is from Alexander Pope's “An Essay on Criticism”: “True ease in Writing comes from Art not chance, As those move easiest who have learned to dance.” The second bit of advice is expressed a little less loftily by some lines I read many years ago as an undergraduate, and cannot now find an author to credit: “The goose who laid the golden egg died looking up its crotch, to find out how its sphincter worked. Would you write well, don't watch.”
They aren't really opposing, of course; one follows the other. Or, they are like a guitar string's peg and post—held in proper tension, they are what allow you to ring a true and pure note. How to do it? Craft is simply a matter of hard work, what John Gardner rightly calls ridiculously hard work. Inspiration is a matter of keeping your ass planted in your writing chair. It will not happen if, when the muse descends on your desk, you are down at the bar telling people you're a writer.