“OK—so I have it all solved,” I told Lady. “Now, all I have to do is to write a bad novel first. Complete and utter crap. Stale characters, ridiculous plot turns, stilted speech, long rambling passages designed to impress the reader. All having the opposite effect, of course….”
“Why write a bad novel?” asked Lady. “Though it might be interesting to see if you could. But surely we don’t lack for bad novels?”
“It’s good advice, really,” I told her. “First, it’s tremendously freeing—it takes all the pressure off you. And then, you get to make mistakes, which is the only way to learn. And lastly, you have the knowledge that, yes, you can write a novel. Even if bad….”
“Well, I’d like to see you try,” said Lady. “And I’ll tell you if it’s bad or not.”
“No, you won’t. I’m not supposed to show it to anyone, and I’m not supposed to read it myself for six months. Oh, and forget publishing it, because it’s going to take at least three novels before I have anything publishable. So Penguin and Simon & Schuster? Sorry, guys—don’t call me, I’ll call you!”
“Well, it doesn’t make much sense to me. And what will happen if you sit down and write the 21st century’s War and Peace? After all, you’ve written one book, though not a novel. But you must have some experience.”
“Doesn’t feel like it,” I told her. “I write something one day, and something the next, and there’s no connection between them. But if I sit down and try to outline a plot—which does make sense—then I go completely barren. Which is why I invent absolutely sterile plots.”
“Get to work,” said Lady. “Make an absolute mess. Hey, why not start out with the worst line of all? ‘It was a dark and stormy night!’ That should send you merrily on the way to the quicksand of mediocrity!”
“Great idea,” I told her. “And can I have my main character spirited away by aliens, who implant a chip allowing her to see the Blessed Virgin Mother?”
“Sure,” she said. “And if that doesn’t work out so well, there’s always the cavalry, right behind that hill….”
“Perfect,” I told her. “Chapter 1!”
It was a dark and stormy night!!!!
(“Love the punctuation,” whispered Lady. “Off to a great start!”
“Shhh,” I told her. “Or maybe ‘shhhhhh!!!!’”)
The lightening fell like celestial swords (‘YES, Marc!’) upon the barren fields of Necedah, Wisconsin. Thunder wracked the air, the animals stirred in their barns, moved closer together, looked upwards in fright. In the nearly deserted farmhouse, Mary Ann van Hoof stood by window, her visage (‘love that…’) torn askew by the tumultuous events of the climatic occurrence.
(“I can’t,” I told her. “I really just can’t do it. It took me five minutes just to cook up that last sentence….”
“You can do it,” she told me.
“You know, what worries me is that by trying to write badly, I’ll actually teach myself bad habits. Actually, ‘it was a dark and stormy night,’ doesn’t seem so bad to me. After all, some nights are darker than others. And if it was stormy—well, that’s what it was. I really think that Bulwar-Lytton-whoever-he-was got a bad rap. I can think of a lot worse….”
It was at that part of the score plus four-hour cycle that God—so loving in his care for mankind, so doting in his ministrations to the most faltering of the sheep in his flock—when the sun, that golden-globed giver of light, takes to its celestial bed, lies down, sighs in contentment, and rests. But on this night—to give it the word which mere mortals call it—the most fearsome of celestial events shattered the peace and tranquility that normally attend to that period of time during which man lays at rest from his daily toils, and takes solace in his bed. Events of the greatest sonic magnitude occurred, accompanied by irruptions of energy in the form of light waves; both phenomenon indicating that a tempestuous period of climactic activity was occurring.
“Right—that is pretty awful,” said Lady. “So maybe you should try not quite so hard?”
“OK—but you have to go back to painting houses, now. No more interruptions!”)
It was a dark and stormy night.
The rain came in sheets, battening down the shoots of corns that were just now sprouting from the soil. Spring had come late to central Wisconsin, and Mary Ann van Hoof, looking out the window of her farmhouse, wondered how the harvest would be, if it continued cool and wet.
She had been poor all her life, but what of it? Who, in the little village of Necedah, Wisconsin, had been rich? There had never been much money in the town, and never much purpose for living there. The soil was sandy, and only grudgingly could be put to work. The fodder was thin, and livestock had a hard time of it. Calves were born sickly, and grew into weak, indifferent cows. Horses were colicky; pigs scrawny and discontent.
No, there was no money, and there never had been. And if the town had been poor before, it had really suffered during the last several decades. First, the dust-bowl years—not as bad in Wisconsin as it had been in the West, but still bad.
“You woke up hot,” said Mary Ann to one of the unwed mothers in her orphanage. “Hot—first thing in the morning. Then you realized: you’d been hot all night, even during your sleep. Never got no relief. And never felt like you’d gotten a good night’s sleep. So you’re lying in your sweaty sheets, and you know this day’s gonna be as hot as yesterday. And it’s been hotter than blazes for the longest time. Don’t remember the last time it rained. And it don’t seem like it ever will again, neither….”
The heat made everybody torpid, senseless. Men and women sat on their porches, hoping to catch a breeze that never came. The silence was total; couples that had chattered in court-hood and early marriage fell mute. The heat stewed the mind and stilled the tongue; movement seemed heavier, as if moving through water.
“That was the summer that the baby wouldn’t stop crying, and wouldn’t keep any milk down, neither. Lord, how that child cried! Night and day, and all I could do was hold her, but seemed like she never fell asleep. You don’t know how desperate a body can become, when all you can hear is that damn crying, and ain’t nothin’ you can do to stop it. Lord!”
What little rain fell didn’t do much good. The crops wilted in the field, and somehow the yellowing of the plants was more painful than the brown of death would be. How, Mary Ann used to wonder, how long can we go on like this? The last good harvest had been nigh on a decade ago, and each year they had planted anew, and hoped anew, and never gotten anything much out of it. What little money they had they put into the field, and watched as the crop sickened and died.
“Had to go to the bank every year,” said Mary Ann, “and we ain’t the sort that ever did. But my husband’s daddy and his granddaddy had farmed the land for generations, and we wasn’t about to be the first generation that lost it. So we kept on, though how I don’t know. So every year it was another loan, and another set of payments, always slightly higher. And each spring, we’d get one good hard rain, and we’d get our hopes up. This year, we’d tell ourselves, we’d get lucky, get a good crop in. And then, nothin’. Ed would sit on the porch, when he should have been out in the fields cultivatin’, but there wasn’t nothin’ to cultivate—even the weeds weren’t grownin’. He’d sit on the porch, smokin’ his hand-rolled cigarette, and he’d look at the horizon. ‘Seems like it’s getting’ dark in the West,’ he’d say. Well, I’d look, and I didn’t see nothin.’ But I couldn’t say nothing, could I?”
“Yes, it was a terrible time. Terrible because of how it turned the men into weaklings. Oh, they could hunt and fish and climb mountains, but they couldn’t work the land, and they couldn’t provide. They saw their wives wearing the same dress year in and year out, and the soup got thinner and thinner. Everybody got thinner, and the little kids musta had worms, probably ‘cause they were eating dirt. ‘Bout all there was to eat, those days.”
“You don’t know nothin’ about being poor,” she told the girl. “Father’s a fancy doctor, down there in Madison, where all them snooty intellectuals live. Oh yes, never had a day when there wasn’t meat and potatoes on the table. Never had to wonder whether the rice and beans would hold out for another day. And never had the worry of a colicky baby cryin’ day and night in the house. But the worst of it all was the wind. Didn’t never stop blowing, those days—and it didn’t cool things down, neither. Like a blast from a hot oven, it was, and it like to have burned you, that’s how hot it was. It was like the devil himself blowing over the land. Lasted all day, and the sound got into you. Seems like there wasn’t nowhere you could escape it: a constant, nagging howl. That and the baby’s cryin’ seemed to be all that a body could hear, and you’d step outside and that blast of wind would hit you, and you’d swear that you were nigh on burning to a crisp. Well, you just prayed you’d get to evening, see the sun set down, and get a little relief. But it never got no cooler, and the wind completely died. So you sat on that damn porch and wondered how in the Lord you was gonna get through another day of this, ‘cause you knew that tomorrow wasn’t going to be no better. And I’d look over at Ed and think, ‘Lordy, is this the man I married?’ ‘Cause he was lookin’ so old, now, like he’d never been anything but a dried up, withered old man. Used to wonder what I’d done to the man, to make him so sad and unhappy. Beaten, really, and just going through the motions of getting’ through the days.”
“Hard to know,” she said, “who had it worse. The menfolk were hit hard—worse than they had ever had it. But the women had to scrounge for whatever there was to put on the table, and then they had to see their men all silent and beaten up. And the worst of it was that you couldn’t say nothin’ cheerful, nothin’ to lift the spirits. ‘Cause if you said, ‘don’t worry, it’ll surely rain soon,’ well, that’s what you’d been saying for years, and when had that ever come true? And you couldn’t stand to see the look on your husband’s face, since both you and him knew it wasn’t true. Oh yes, awful, awful years.”
‘It’s so fucking boring,’ thought Joan. ‘Every night, on and on, like I hadn’t heard it a million times. Why do old people think kids never had it tough? Why do they get to have a monopoly on suffering? They had nothing, we have everything. Christ, I’ll be glad when I’m out of the clutches of this old lunatic.’
Outside, the wind howled and raged; the storm was nowhere near abating. As if by divine command, both Joan and Mary Ann looked out, just as a bolt of lightening split the century-old oak in two.