We are delighted to present the second installment of an occasional Paris Play feature, the first chapter of an as-yet-unpublished novel, by a writer we treasure and want to showcase.
We also ask each writer to provide us with a short craft talk on how the novel came about, and they will be available, in the comments section, to answer your questions about the process. Just leave a comment and we will relay their reply.
There are thousands of online sites, and small magazines, that offer short stories and poetry, but as a novelist, I wanted some way to spotlight writers who are working in that longer form, and to whet readers' appetites for the rest of the book.
The writers have not submitted, we have asked. It's not a slush pile, it's the tip of a diamond-fine iceberg. However, you can recommend a writer's work to us.
Which leads directly to the first chapter we're presenting this week, from Jennifer Genest's recently completed novel, The Mending Wall.
The Mending Wall (c) 2013 by Jennifer Genest
“…I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone…”
--Robert Frost, “Mending Wall
Chapter 1: John
It was March in Maine when John Young became a local hero. There had been an unseasonable thaw, and then a subsequent cold snap and flurries, which gave ponds slushy, tricky patches you had to avoid.
John had been doing an “emergency” Sunday job at the Wedding Cake House, out in Kennebunkport. The owner’s nephew had accidentally backed into the 100-year-old wall while plowing the driveway, smashing it into a jumbled pile of rock. He tried to restack it out in the snow, quickly realized he was in over his head, and called Leo, the handyman whose number he found stuck to the refrigerator.
“You should have seen him, man,” Leo had told John, “Trying to fix the wall before his auntie came back from Florida. He was out there freezing his balls off. I told him, ‘No offense, man, but you restacking this wall is like asking a monkey to repaint the Mona Lisa.’ I gave him your card. ‘This guy is an artist,’ I said. ‘The only master craftsman waller in Maine.’”
When John arrived, the nephew greeted him with an upward nod. “You the stone guy?” he asked. Then, “How quick can you fix this?”
“Few hours,” John said.
“Cutting it close,” the nephew said. “My aunt is supposed to be back this afternoon. Look, it’s kind of a piece of shit…can’t we do it quick?”
“I’ll do my best,” John said.
The nephew stood by while John got started, separating the top course of stones from the bottom. Normally John would be on edge to have someone watch him, but he knew that kid wouldn’t hang out for long in the cold.
“The handyman guy said you were a pro,” the nephew said. “Is that why your hourly rate is so high?”
“I’ve been doing it for a while. And it’s a Sunday. I don’t usually work on Sundays.”
The nephew looked at John’s old dump truck, the Moody Blue, and the attached trailer with the tractor. He walked around it, his hands shoved deep into his tan corduroy pockets. “This thing an antique?” he asked, pointing his chin at the truck. His brown Saab—shaped like a baked potato—was parked in the far corner of the driveway. It had a UCONN sticker in the back window.
“It’s over 20 years old,” said John. “So technically, yes.”
“Passes inspection and all, huh?”
John silently located the base stones in the pile, laying them close together, with their broadest side against the packed, frozen ground. He assessed the size of the long, heavy thrufters and decided to unload the tractor. The nephew watched closely.
John began placing the first course over the base, using the tractor to lift and guide the thrufters into place, where they’d run through the width of the wall, stabilizing it. As he’d predicted, the nephew soon went inside.
The rest of the wall sagged from years of neglect and frost heaves. John studied it while he worked steadily on the wrecked portion, which he knew looked a little too clean and tight to pass for untouched.
Sometimes, he had to do what the customer wanted. This often meant ignoring his overwhelming sense to restore a wall, and to instead simply repair—“preserve”—it back to its disheveled state. But he’d been driving by this wall for years; he’d envisioned its potential, and he felt honored to work on it. He was in a mood today—he had to listen to the stones, had to make it absolutely flawless—even if it was just a section, and even if that meant restacking it later.
When he finished, he put his chisel, sledge and shovels back into the Moody Blue, and the nephew came out.
“Man,” the nephew said, looking at the wall. “It looks too good. She’s going to know we messed with it. Isn’t there any way you can loosen it up?” He grasped a stone on the top course and rocked the weight of his skinny, frat-boy body against it. It wouldn’t budge. “You shouldn’t’ve changed it…” he said. “It’s historic. Why did you change it?”
“I didn’t change it,” John said. “I restored it. This section is how it originally looked a hundred years ago—maybe even better.” He jumped on top of the wall, his breath freezing in a huff. He rocked from side to side, to prove that nothing moved, nothing wobbled. The nephew still didn’t look impressed.
“I see what you’re doing,” the nephew said. “Trying to make the rest of it look bad, so you can get some work ‘restoring’ all of it. This isn’t the time to be messing with…a piece of history.”
“You know what?” John began. He took a deep breath. It wasn’t worth it. He’d get his check and leave. “If your aunt isn’t happy with it, call me up, blame it on me. I’ll fix it.”
The nephew sighed. “Defeats the whole purpose, though, you coming out here today. She’ll still know I wrecked it.”
“Well, maybe she’ll like it.” John was exhausted. “Anyone who knows anything about restoration will be happy with that.” He wanted to get home—he kept thinking about beef stew.
“Whatever, man. You’re the expert.” There was a tone of condescension in the kid’s voice.
The nephew was working John’s last nerve. “Look,” he said. “Try finding anyone else to stack stone in March. I don’t need your friggin' work, either, by the way. And—oh—next time you drive a snowplow, try not to fuck up history by backing into it.”
The nephew raised an eyebrow, dismissed him by taking a checkbook from his jacket and clicking open his pen. “Who do I make the check out to?”
“How about ‘Guy who saved my ass?’”
* * *
It was starting to get dark when John got home. He put his tools back in the barn. The house lights were off; Allison must still be at her friend Carrie’s house. Since turning thirteen, she never seemed to be home. As he clicked the big padlock shut on the barn door, the street light on the corner flicked on—it was when kids knew it was time to come home. He was walking toward the house when he heard the panicked shouts from behind the barn.
That morning, Allison had asked him if he thought the pond was still okay for skating, and he’d told her to wait for another full week of freezing weather, to play it safe. Weeks ago she and Carrie were working on spins, and they brought John to the pond to show him their Waltz jumps. Allison’s jump was cautious but the landing beautiful, her thin legs steady in rainbow legwarmers, her rosy face grinning with pride. Carrie’s jump was impressively high but she landed on the toe pick, nearly falling, her blonde hair whipping forward before she regained her balance. They were eager to get back onto the ice today and make their jumps perfect.
“But we stay where it’s shallow,” Allison told him that morning. “I’m sure it’s frozen solid. It has been all winter.”
“No,” he told her. “Just stay off it today. Let me check for sure this weekend.”
John now rounded the corner of the barn, his body hot with adrenaline, his steel-toed boots squeaking the snow as he ran across the half acre toward the channel-fed pond at the edge of the woods.
Allison’s red coat was what he saw first. She was flat on her stomach against the ice. “Reach for me!” she was shouting.
In response, a heavy gasp. Splashing. The fingers of Carrie’s purple gloves were visible, fingers curled, trying to dig into the ice. The top half of her face and blonde hairline barely protruded from the hole in the ice; she held herself up the same way a swimming dog holds his nose above the water.
“Carrie, reach!” Allison screamed.
“Allison!” he yelled.
Water whipped from the ends of her two long, dark braids as she turned to look at him. A surge went through him when he saw her face—relief that she wasn’t in the water, horror that Carrie was, panic that Allison could be, at any moment. “Dad, Carrie fell through. She fell through! I can’t get her!”
“Don’t you move, Allison…don’t you goddamn move an inch toward that hole!” His tone snapped her into focus, and she froze her body, nodding slightly.
He jogged along the small pond’s shore, crazed with facts. It was getting dark; soon he would barely be able to see. Allison was a featherweight—90 pounds, maybe—and he was at least twice that. He couldn’t go onto the ice; he had to run back to call for help. But he couldn’t leave them. And the closest neighbor was a quarter mile down the road.
A long-forgotten storage area of his brain engaged, spewing out information: A person could only stay conscious for 20 minutes in freezing water—less than that if they were thin or struggled. Some could survive for up to 90 minutes, if they stayed calm, brought their knees to their chest to keep their organs warm, and didn’t thrash.
The trick was to stay calm.
He removed his jacket. “Allison,” he said, forcing softness into his deep voice. She looked back at him helplessly, tearfully, her hands and feet splayed wide, like she’d stopped in mid-flutter while making a snow angel. He heaved the jacket toward her, and it landed at her feet. “Slow, slowly, turn and grab the jacket. Hold it by the sleeve, tight, and throw an end to Carrie.”
With a shaking hand, she did as he said. The coat wouldn’t reach. Carrie had stopped splashing; her purple gloves were flat and still on the edge. Allison tried again, grasping the cuff of John’s black jacket and whipping the rest of the fabric toward Carrie. Carrie caught it and cried out.
“Carrie,” John shouted. “Honey, gather up your strength and kick up, hard—try to get your chest and belly back up on the ice! Allie, pull—steady—on her!” He pictured Carrie’s white figure skates scrambling in the murky, freezing water, trying to find tread. He knew her legs must be numb.
There was a wild chatter of teeth, then another splash as Carrie yanked the jacket without warning, pulling it from Allison’s grip and into the water with her.
“Allie, quiet,” he commanded. “Okay,” he said. “Carrie, be still, honey,” he said. “Just hang tight, don’t you let go! You hear me? Allison, don’t you let her let go! I’m going to get rope!”
He ran to the barn, undid the lock. How deep was the pond? Probably just over six feet—maybe seven—where they were. Why hadn’t he ever waded out to the middle of it in the summer, or sank a rope or a branch, to find out? It was stagnant water, full of duck shit, deerflies and mosquitoes, but still, why hadn’t he ever thought to find out how deep the fucking pond was?
He searched the barn. Where the fuck was the rope he had bought to use for a clothes line, two summers ago, when the dryer broke? Jesus! Where? He grabbed his pen light from his tool chest, and looked for something—anything—rope-like to throw to them. Jumper cables? Too short. Finally, he spotted the dusty, shrink-wrapped coil of clothes line rope, peeking out from a box under the workbench. He took the padlock from the barn door. As he ran out, he flagged a passing car, waving the rope above his head.
Call an ambulance. A girl has fallen through the ice back here. Hurry. Hurry!
“I’m back!” John announced to the almost complete darkness. He shined the light on them. “Girls, I’m here, I’m here.”
Allison had moved forward and was holding Carrie’s hands.
How long had she been in the water now? Five minutes? Ten? When did she fall through?
“Allie,” he said. “Why did you move?”
“Dad. I think she’s dead! She let go of the ice.”
“No,” he said, refusing to let this register. “Just keep talking to her. She’s lost consciousness.”
“Oh my God, I killed her. Oh my God!”
“Allie, stop it,” he said. There was a beat of silence. “Honey, she’s passed out is all. She’s going to be fine.” This last part was to convince himself, so he repeated it.
He tore the shrink wrap from the clothesline with his teeth, unraveled it, and quickly attached the padlock with a square knot. “Allie,” he said. “Here, honey, I’m throwing the line to you, so when you feel the thud next to you, I want you to try to reach around, then wrap the rope around your ankle.”
“I can’t let go of her.”
“You can do this with one hand. You’re one strong chicken. I know you can do it.” She wouldn’t respond. “Allison.”
She was shaking and crying, almost silently, seemingly paralyzed by fear. He called for her three more times, and she wouldn’t respond.
He had no choice. He approached the pond and lay, stomach down, on the ice. He crawled low and quick, until he was an arm’s length from his daughter’s white skates; he could barely make out her ladybug-printed laces now, the cheery bugs like black dots. The ice groaned terrifyingly, and Allison screamed.
He tied the rope onto her skate blades, then gripped her calf and squeezed.
“Allison, you have to do this. You have to hold her—tight, tight, tight—I’m going to pull with the rope.” He patted her calf. “You hear me?”
“Yes,” she said. She had returned from fear. “Yes. I can do it.”
From the shore, John pulled steadily on the rope, holding the pen light in his mouth and casting a weak, crooked light toward the girls. Miraculously, the ice held, and so did Allison’s grip. And then, like a difficult birthing, Carrie emerged, still and wet. Pulling the rope hand over hand, John blinked tearfully, spitting the flashlight into the snow as he slid the girls the last few feet onto the shoreline.
Allison stood on her skates, letting out a gasp. She knelt over Carrie. John untied the rope from Allison’s skates.
“Run, honey, you need to run home, call an ambulance, and run back here with blankets. Move!”
She ran in her skates, the blades singing out against the snow.
Carrie’s lips were blue, her eyes closed. The top of her head was still dry, but the rest of her fine hair was matted against her jacket hood and her face, the ends crisp with ice. He felt for a pulse.
Later, when John looked back on this moment, he wouldn’t remember how he knew what to do, or how he remembered the CPR he’d learned in the Scouts 25 years earlier, or all the ice fishing lifesaving tips he’d apparently gleaned from a pamphlet or two.
He unzipped her jacket and located her sternum—just over the head of a unicorn on her purple sweater. He laced his bare hands together and began CPR, the one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and-five-and…until he reached fifteen, and then delivered a breath to her frozen mouth. He continued, determined, knowing she would not die. Girls don’t die at twelve, he told himself, not here, not now, not on my watch. Finally, she coughed, and he turned her on her side as she vomited into the snow, breathing at last.
She looked at him. Her white-blue eyes were just as striking as they had always been, and he held her hand to his chest, patting it rapidly.
“Oh Jesus, thank Christ…you’re okay, honey, just had an accident. We’ll get you home and call your Gramma. We have to get these icy clothes off you, so you don’t get hypothermia.”
Allison returned as he was sitting Carrie up. “Carrie!”
“She’s okay,” John said.
Sirens sounded in the distance.
“Oh Christ, good,” John said. “Allie, help me get her coat off.”
Allie held her sitting up while John removed her soaked lavender coat, then pulled off her purple unicorn sweater, leaving her thermal undershirt. Her long icy hair lifted with the sweater, exposing the back of her neck—and a glimpse in the dark of what he thought was blood.
“Allie! The flashlight. She’s bleeding.”
She scooped the flashlight from the snow and shone it where her father indicated. He blinked, certain he hadn’t really seen what he saw: a purple-red birthmark shaped like a large, blurry smudge of a kiss. It curved slightly to the left, like the wind was blowing it.
“Dad,” Allison said, sounding embarrassed. She quickly removed the light. “That’s her birth mark. She totally hates when people look at that. She won’t even wear a ponytail.”
“Oh...” John turned to Carrie. “I barely saw it. It’s dark,” he said.
“It’s okay, Mr. Young,” she said, weakly. “I don’t care.” She was shivering uncontrollably.
Allison’s mother had had a birthmark in the same place, but hers was smaller and shaped like Texas. She called it her stork bite. She had died when Allison was a baby. Just now, John realized that he’d never told Allison about this important, unique feature of her own mother. His eyes watered.
He wrapped Carrie in the two Afghan blankets that Allison had taken from the living room couch. Then he scooped her up, carrying her through the snow to the house, where the blue and red lights of a fire truck and an ambulance were approaching.
The Mending Wall: Craft Discussion. On Writing Chapter One
When I was writing the final draft(s) of this manuscript, I had the rare fortune of renting a private writing space for three months. I sat there each day for two hours and did nothing but imagine, drink tea, and outline the story on a huge paper matrix. I had no smart phone, no internet access, and nobody to talk to. It wasn't exactly writing, but more like entering an early stage of pregnancy when the cells form something that could one day be a heart and a brain (coincidentally, I was also pregnant with my daughter at the time).
After three months, when I felt confident in what the four main characters were capable of, what they wanted and what they needed, I began to write. I had a fairly solid skeletal outline and wrote on faith that it would develop flesh as I went.
I had written previous drafts in first person, and from the single point of view of Allison, a teenage girl I identified with so strongly that I believe it hindered her voice and blocked perspective. This final version, told in third person, gives voice to Allison, but as one of four rotating character’s voices—a solution I felt comfortable with.
Chapter one needed to:
o Establish John as an honest, working-class man
o Show his heroism in a dramatic way (which will later be scrutinized)
o Introduce an element of intimacy between John and Carrie (mouth to mouth)
I knew John would rescue Carrie from the icy water. I knew his daughter would imagine his mouth on her friend’s; I knew how messy and twisted that could potentially become in a teenage girl’s mind.
Aside from once being a teenage girl myself, three other things helped me bring John, Allison and Carrie to Chapter One:
o When I was in grade school, a young boy drowned after falling through the frozen pond in the center of our rural town; he had been walking across the pond as a shortcut to get home from school. For weeks afterward in the news, there were warnings, information and tips on ice safety.
o When I was a young teen, a friend of mine nearly lost her horse one night when it fell through the ice in a small pasture pond. A man walking home heard the mare struggling and thrashing. The story went that he ran into the dark snowy field, held her head above the water and screamed for help; soon help arrived to pull the horse to safety. Later, after the man was deemed a hero in the local paper, people began to say he was just a drunk walking home because he’d lost his license, that he just wanted attention, and that he was no hero.
o The third thing that affected me deeply—and has so many others, to this day—was the murder of a twelve-year-old girl in my home town. I was eleven at the time; she and I had been classmates the year before. She was strangled by one of her neighbors, a quiet boy who had books about Satanism. No motive was ever established, and there were no signs of sexual assault. This act of violence shook our safe, unlocked town to its core. Rumors were born. On top of the grief, there was the lack of explanation, the anger and shock that it could be something as evil as this: the girl’s murderer killed simply for the thrill of feeling what it was like to kill someone. How could this be?
How this manuscript came to be is a mix of those ingredients, the feelings and memories I had, the questions as I asked What if…?–and then challenging and changing the truths I knew. What if a good man turns out to be bad? What if you hide the painful truth from a child…will it, in fact, protect her from pain? What if a man of God is no more than a man of flesh? What if a child doubts who her father really is? What if a man loses his reputation—does he lose everything? And what if a troubled, evil boy in real life had been capable of love, if only here, in fiction?
But I’m getting ahead of myself; most of these things come in later chapters. For now, you know that John is a hero; that’s enough.
In the past Jennifer has worked as a chambermaid in a beach motel, for a patriotic beer company in Boston, and as a copywriter. Her manuscript for The Mending Wall was completed in 2012.
She lives with her husband and daughter near Los Angeles.