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Novel excerpt: from The Year of Doing Nothing and Everything

Thursday 7/7/22


Saturday, January 1.

Someone once said (don’t ask me who) that to stare at a white page upon which you intend to write—this being the key qualifier—was to peer into your own soul.

Hmmm. They might have added—and maybe they did—that the sole way to start was to start, which is only simple and self-evident if you don’t understand what it means, and how it goes with most things, the gargantuan, or at the shoelace-level. So here I go.

I have returned to this house that for many years I fought to come back to. This time I am alone. The man whom I loved is not here for my second pass. The house itself is a white page, after a fashion, but for me it’s also dotted in words and phrases as other white pages are slathered in invisible ink. I can decipher or not decipher. On some days its seems I have more of a choice than on others.

But first things first. I’m back! Eeesh. I’ve always anticipated saying that with the voice of General MacArthur in my head, having heard a recording of him. (Actually: Didn’t Michael Jordan say “I’m back” when he un-retired the first time?)

Never let it be said that I am a woman who can’t laugh at herself. Well, that’s a joke I make to me after I’ve been awkward, a regular occurrence. Plus, I’ve already cleared one hurdle in how I’ve started this record. A professor of mine in college had this theory/view that people are too reliant on the word “when.” Especially writers.

“Notice how many times a story or a book begins with the word ‘When,’” he’d say, and after that innocuous class I noticed it constantly, the way you do a saying that annoys you, augering into your brain, like, I don’t know, when commercials on television boast about degrees of uniqueness. “Our newly designed vacuum cleaner is the most unique model on the market!”

Aack. If less people qualified the word “unique,” the world would be a better place for the people who know better. Ha. That’s pretty selfish sounding. It’s just a joke, but still…I’m not sure if I’m unique, but having passed what that professor called the When Test, I’d like to think that counts for something, as I was hesitant to sit at this desk today and begin what I promised myself I’d begin, though I’m loosening up.

People say I give a very firm handshake for a woman. But that doesn’t make me unique. I felt like giving this white page a handshake after I cracked open the Word file on my computer this morning while I looked outside this upstairs window, which needs its shade replaced, facing the sea 400 yards away. I think it’s 400 yards. I measure in football fields, and have ever since watching stacks of games with my father as a kid. He approved. The same way that he never turned left or right in this life, but rather east, west, south, or north, and liked when I gave directions in the same style.

We were tight, and I will think about him in this house. The second phase of this house. Mach II. For me. Thinking as I do within these walls—already—resembles what is meant by the above remark about the nature of white pieces of paper on which you intend to write, and my further notion of giving your own soul a handshake, but I am cool with that. An introduction often accompanies or follows. A reintroduction. I should do one now.

Hello, white page. Record. Journal. You who will live for a predetermined amount of time. I am Arnelle Batchco, known by those who know me, love me, hate me, think I’m okay, or that I kind of suck, as Arn. To strangers I am Arnelle. I am almost certain my mom has never called me the name she gave me. I’m a thin woman of New England extraction who has herself been consumed by macro-units of pain, and done some heavy-duty consuming herself at times and become a post-thin, quasi-blobular woman still of New England extraction (because that part doesn’t change), but now is too boney for her own good, as her doctor back in Boston—to whom she is as loyal as lichen to a rock—has adjured her to address.

I’m in my sixth decade of life, the early portion—aka, I’m fifty-one-years-old—and have also existed in long, spiraling spells of death that are not measured as mere trips around the sun, and thus have their own temporal reality, which I often think of as dog years v. human years. Death-wise, I might be 303, by my most recent calculations, if we allow that death doesn’t just mean dead, but can also mean how much you hurt. That sounds whiney. My bad. I don’t want to do that here. No whining, bitch! I also shouldn’t call myself a bitch, but for the record, it’s with an internal voice suggestive of Blanche Deveraux from The Golden Girls, and then it comes off as smart joshing—take that, Dorothy Zbornak!—rather than self-inflicted misogyny. Now that we have that clear…

There are people who thought I was crazy to come back here, despite having been told in the calmest, most even voice I could manage—a voice with its own pulse rate of 65-BPM—that returning to this house was my dream, and what was right for me.

“If died and there was a heaven, I’d live in that house.”

God I have said that a lot. Sometimes I’d make a utopia-based argument instead, with talk of Xanadu replacing the land of the Pearly Gates, because I don’t want to come across as a thumper of Bibles, a zealot using wishy-washy ardor to blot up her pain, any more than I do a crazy cat lady. I have no cats. As a woman who lives alone and changes her hair color often—it was a green and red mix one Christmas—I’m cognizant that I run a risk of being thought of as a witch by local children, especially on Cape Ann.

This place is certainly stuffed with lore. I intend to dive headlong into a lot of it, beginning when the snow stops. Witches did live here. Well, close. You know what’s funny? All oceans are probably the same age, right? And yet, I still believe that the ocean here is, if not older, a corner of a larger body that stands out of time—like it’s two steps off the pelagic grid-from all of the other oceans, seas, harbors, coves, salt water rivers, and assorted inlets of briny romance and mystery, whether they have featured a pirate captain stashing his gold in a cave carved by waves, or a high school girl and boy who snuck out at night to a tucked-away patch of sand to do what they hadn’t done before.

In short: no cats! But there is a dog, who is mild-mannered and inquisitive to the point of being what you could call convivial—seriously, he’s canine Noel Coward—save when I try to remove his sweater, which he insists on wearing in the house, this frowzy garment reading, “Pet at your own risk” on each side. I’m worried I’m going to have to take him to the vet to drug him to get him out of this thing so I can wash it, because it has gotten pretty rank. He enjoys biting the part around his neck, a telltale sign he’s thinking hard. This proud clotheshorse of a dog is a muscular French bulldog named Amory, after the main character of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, whose title comes from some lines by the poet Rupert Brooke, who died of sepsis brought on by an infected mosquito bite in the first World War: “Well his side of paradise!.../There’s little comfort in the wise.”

I hope he is both right and wrong. Sometimes I’m not unwise, so I’m roped into the equation. I’d prefer not to be dumb, and I’d prefer Rupert Brooke to agree, from everything I’ve read about him. And I want comfort. Amory helps, when he isn’t growling like he wants to hack my hand off with his teeth as I attempt to disrobe him. I did purchase a second doggy sweater which bears the words, “Just chillin’” and features what admittedly looks like a rogue, faintly rabid reindeer that Santa Claus had to cast out of Christmas Village, but I can tell from the way that Amory sticks out his lower jaw as I hold this alternate jersey in front of him for his possible approval, shaking it a bit, that he is thus far a long way from convinced.

I’ve not written in two weeks. I’m giving up formal writing for this year, but I need some outlet. One year. Today is the first day of 2022. That’s noted at the top, minus the year, because it looked grandiloquent, but I am new to this, so I’m being thorough. The place: Rockport, Massachusetts. This house: built in the the annum of 1840, the same year this craggy, nook-and-cranny of a coastal town was incorporated.

Technically, half of this home is from that year, the other half from, well, I don’t know when. Probably the era when The Brady Bunch first ran. This is no mansion. The house is 1912 square feet. 1912 is the year that the Titanic sank, and Fenway Park opened in Boston, which is thirty miles to the south. The Sox won the World Series that year. The Boston nine had a better year than English deck officers.

The zip code is 01966, which dovetails with my regular musical playlists, because a lot of my favorite albums came out in 1966. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, the Who, and the Kinks were arguably as good as they ever got that year. Jimi Hendrix and Cream were starting. The zip code of this town has a knack for triggering my favorite sounds in my head. You can keep your sounds of silence—though it’s worth noting that the Simon and Garfunkel hit came out in 1966 as well—because I have needed sounds of comfort. I’m still learning about the forms they take and will endeavor to explore them in this journal.

On days elsewhere, I thought constantly of returning to this place. In various elsewheres that registered in my hope-shorn mind and the sagging pit of my stomach, and my occluded heart, as far from here as Neptune. Nay, further. You can say nay when you live by the sea.

In those places I felt the most specific form of fear that I have known—the most unique, a writer of vacuum cleaner commercials might say—because I understood how real death was for me on certain mornings, and that I could be gone if I lessened what was left of my grip on the rope. I dangled the idea before me of this house like a carrot that was also a beacon. Then I’d fight with myself. “Well, if you die today, maybe you could get back to Rockport faster, and be a ghost in your old house. That could work.”

In my saving dreams that took place during these days, but were not themselves daydreams, my best friend Whitney or my near-best friend Doak—because he’s exceedingly handy—would come with me for the triumphant return. I’d fantasize about asking them to just give me a minute, to remain in the driveway after our arrival, while I did something inside. I would bound up the stairs, to this room where I sit now at a desk made of wood that was allegedly pulled from under the muck—hundreds of years of decayed leaves—of the Concord River, the snow now clumping against this window with its busted shade I have to replace, sticking despite the wind, so that I can no longer see my reflection. I was going to play a song loud on the stereo, my song of overcoming and returning, to have a moment in which I did indeed shake the hand, and hug the fibers, of my own soul, a house within my breast and core, kitted out with teeming limbs.

I laugh now. Okay, Arn. I hadn’t worked out the logistics. Who put this stereo in a house that didn’t even have a stick of furniture in it yet? Perhaps Doak would have known to find a way to get one there, pluck my old stereo out of storage, working in cahoots with the realtor, because he’s always had a gift—no, that sounds narcissistic on my part—call it a knack, then—for picking up on these hints that friends like these have intimated I give off subconsciously, the breadcrumbs of my innermost life that may or may not be as visible as that path laid out for Hansel and Gretel. Obviously I don’t want to bake Whitney nor Doak. They’d be able to hear that music cranking outside, though, and would cry in the driveway as I did upstairs. Different tears for different reasons, but under the same thematic heading: She did it!

I could never settle on the song. Back when I used to drink, and shortly before I passed out from all the drinking I did, the song had a tendency to be Quiet Riot’s “Cum on Feel the Noize.” It wasn’t as if I could go through a dozen tracks, then pop back out. “Hey, friends, sorry about the wait. Was staging this biopic type cathartic moment, if they ever make a movie about me. And oh yeah, I went low key and played Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come.’”

That would be rude. And after I emerged, we’d say nothing about the delay, and instead act as if I’d been gone for thirty seconds. “Ready?” Doak and/or Whitney—because maybe it’d be best that both of them came—would ask, all clipped and business-like, and I’d nod, my face the essence of inner strength that had now—with the aforesaid internal limbs—clutched its proof of external triumph. No words, just a barely perceptible up and down of what a boy in middle school once called my big pumpkin, though I have a slender face. Well, maybe a whispered—but fiery—“yes.” You’d have to listen close for it, though.

Then I wouldn’t die on those days. My grip remained on the rope. I didn’t plunge into an abyss. All so that I could be here, and what that here represents to me. Because you can have a house, and you can have the houseness of a house. These are quite different things. Anyway. Here’s how we are going to do this. I’m going to stick to it. I’m not saying every day, but I will not shirk this record! I keep calling it a record, like a pun. That’s how the Beatles came up with the name for Revolver. What’s a record do? It revolves! Get it? Cheeky Liverpudlians! Everyone thinks the Beatles were talking about a gun. Bang bang, pretty pretty. That’s from a lyric from a song by my other favorite band, the Stone Roses, called “Shoot You Down.” I want to ascend, or, if not ascend, halt the falling for a period of time. Then ascend.

A journal is a record. Maybe not like Revolver is, but, you know. They share a word. This is mine. And maybe it is my song as well, or at least my song of one year. I was supposed to start at six in the morning today, which is actually late for me, but I wanted to force myself to mix in some relaxation—a leisurely pace!—for the first day of a new year, the first full year of the rest of the years of my life that will be in part about this house. Its houseness. And mine. Because people have houseness, too. Not as much as they used to, I’d wager, but I may be unique there.

That meant that I listened to Miles Davis and his Second Great Quintet at the Plugged Nickel in Chicago around Christmas 1965, on the stereo that Doak did set up for me, gaining in confidence in my theory that Tony Williams is the greatest jazz drummer of all-time, then nodding in agreement with myself as I let “Walkin’” from the band’s first set on December 23 wash over me again, then thrice. No one plays the cymbals like Tony Williams played the cymbals. I drank three cups of coffee out of my obscenely-sized Cape Cod mug (if it was a dildo, it’d be one of those twelve-inch models that ought to come with a “may result in disemboweling” warning), which I think was meant to hold seashells, or the hard candy that grandmothers from generation to generation have long featured, and will presumably always feature, as part of their imperishable décor, and better resembles a bowl/vat than a cup, so I am more wired than usual.

And I’m nervous! This is my soul, after all, if we adhere to the white page theory. This page isn’t white anymore. I write all the time, it’s what I do, but seeing the black here, right now, has different meaning to me. I have the bad character trait of judging people by whether or not they use clichés, so I’m someone who views The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as the devil’s work, if the devil was dumb and lazy—though I tend to think he’s perspicacious and robust—but, okay, there is truth to the whole “once begun you’re halfway done” business. That’s the one cliché I believe in. I’ll shake hands with it, too.

I will keep this record until the last day of this first full year, as the final moments of 2022 wind down, and December 31 becomes January 1, the way it did eight hours ago. Those words—whatever they may be that I might write—will share space with these words. The alpha and the omega function that way, I think. They want to take a peak at each other. The end of a record is never that far away from the start; it’s just around the bend of pages, or a matter of hitting play again, and then “Tomorrow Never Knows” is followed by “Taxman.” I picture the beginning and the end interfacing with a cautious “hey” and a returned, “what’s up?” Who knows—perhaps the end of the world will greet the beginning of it the same way two little kids do on their first playdate.

I’m proud to say that with this first entry, I did not fall into the chasm of what that old professor—upon whom I had a crush—termed “the trap of when.” A girl can give herself props, right?

“Don’t be bogged down by a fixed point,” he’d caution. “Try not to start at a point anchored in the past. Begin with flow, because life is flow, and so is the best writing.”

I will heal, I will delve into what I love, and I won’t work my ass down to a shiny nub, writing as I have written for so long to get here. This is the year, my year, of doing nothing. When Arn makes a promise to herself, she honors it!

Ugh. Don’t refer to yourself in the third person like a nerd. I must remember that. I may be what the kids call a dork—do they still use that term?—but I can try and be a little cooler. Right, Arn? Hmmm. Didn’t last long. It’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up.

The snow sounds like it is knocking on the windows of this room and the two doors downstairs, a pelting, rubato fanfare. It wants in. To take a tour around the place. Billow in corners. Dance in open spaces. To speak to me in gusts, as I am left with words, and whatever is expressed by the dimple in my chin and the freckles that remain beneath my eyes.

I’ve never thought of the weather as the perpetual neighbor of all of us, but it really is. I’m reminded of that in this house and in this town, region, living seascape. Traveling companion, too—even when you stay at home. There’s no fire in the fireplace, which the snow might find thoughtful and hospitable on my part. “Thank you, Arn, because I would hate to melt, you see, given that it is much more impressive to be cyclonic snow than a mere puddle, and I’ve fought so hard, for so long, to travel through the clouds.”

That’s the type of remark that would have made my dad say, “You and me both, brother,” and infiltrated my language, too. I could crack a window, for the weather’s maximum comfort, as it enters and asserts itself in this house and all of its houseness, and compensate by donning another layer as the snow itself creates a cross-section of layers against the blank slate of a slate-colored sky, a pale gray sweatshirt over a pale gray sweatshirt. Maybe I could get the adult version of the sweater that Amory rocks with fashionable aplomb, and we could be twinsies. I’ll ask him what he thinks. He’s presently noshing on a stick of Pup-Peroni, and appears to prefer Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot—which we’ve switched to—over Miles Davis at the Plugged Nickel. He answers with his eyes, which sometimes say everything, for woman or beast, slowing his chewing to a veritable crawl of teeth to savor the feeling of my fingers scratching the hair on his head.

I like it when it’s cold in this house, and maybe even I am something elemental in my way. I wear my socks indoors so that it’s a treat after I finally take them off at night, but not until I am under the covers, those socks left to fend for themselves in the recesses of the bed, ferried away by Amory in the morning, to be ditched downstairs by his bowls. I press one foot against a calf, then the other against the other. That’s how I remind myself that I am whole. It can also be a part of how I try to convince myself.

I hope the snow continues—or starts up again—tonight as I’m in bed. I may knock on the wall that faces towards the sea, the same as I used to do with my brother, to let that swirling, window-clumping whiteness know that yes, I am here. I am here. I am really here.


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