Clouds of Doubt

22 Mar

I swear the calendar says it’s spring, but the skies are grey in Nebraska today. A fresh dusting of snow covers the still-dormant ground. There’s more snow in the forecast for tonight, and tomorrow, and probably the day after that. I feel like a little kid with my nose pressed to the window, wishing and hoping, thinking and praying, wondering if winter’s ever going to end so I can go outside and play.

Editing is a lot like winter. It’s a cold and miserable, grey-sky drudgery lacking the creative spark of spring, the warm waters of summer, the breathtaking colors of fall. Basically, it sucks. Big time. This winter of editing has been especially horrid for me, plagued with endless stops and stutters, rewrites, deletions and frustrated tears. Every time I think I’m done, those pesky clouds of self-doubt start rolling in again, and I’m right back where I started. But I do believe the clouds have finally parted, allowing those beautiful blue skies of completion to shine through. Hallelujah.

This book has seen so many rewrites I’ve been afraid to post any excerpts for fear they would end up on the cutting room floor. But then I thought, heck, why not let you read it anyway? What good are words if not to be read, right? The following scene has a 87.4% chance of making to publication. Pretty good odds, but you might want to read it now, just in case. 😉

***

Deep in a valley all but nature had forgotten, with the rising sun as their only witness, Jimmy had knelt upon the damp earth beneath the spread of a gnarled burr oak. The knees of his jeans had soaked up the morning dew. The collar of her shirt had collected her tears. In a shallow grave, they buried the final shreds of their youth along with the broken promise of two pink lines. He managed to hold his grief at bay until the sun kissed the tips of the branches. When it broke, the weight of its release drove him bodily to the ground.

If Marissa had ever returned, he did not know. He had been unable to stay away. More often than he should have in the first few months, he would find himself descending into the valley to sit beside the ground they had turned, the blemish healing with the passing season.

With his guitar in his lap, Johnnie Walker by his side, he pressed his back against the rough bark of the patient oak and called upon the melancholy companionship of Nick Drake and Neil Young, Jeff Buckley, Bert Jansch and others to carry him through what lay beyond the blaze of the setting sun. One song blending into another, he explored the depths of the starry night sky and prayed for the ever merciless God to finally take pity and allow him to make his escape, only to awaken hours later, wrung out and hung-over, pained by the beautiful stain of the sunrise.

As time passed, the lure of the valley eased and he lost his craving for death, but it was not the Lord who deserved thanks for binding his wounds and healing his broken his heart. It was his Martin. A 1993 OM-21, it had been well-played and slightly abused before it became his. He subjected it to more of both over the years. He’d play until the strings broke and his fingers bled, and then leave it to lie forgotten. He had celebrated with it, hidden behind it, and fallen asleep with it under his arm. It had explored back country roads with him, helped him pick up women, and had kept him company when none were available. It was the Martin that had lifted him from the valley, and many years later, it was the Martin he had sought solace from during the uncertain hours following his father’s first stroke. And it was the Martin that had bolstered his courage the night he confessed to Kylie his darkest sin.

On a New Year’s Eve he wasn’t in the mood to celebrate, he found himself sitting in the Johansen’s living room, waiting on Ashley. Ordinarily, he would have left her behind, but when he walked into the house, he found Kylie gently swaying in the rocking chair, Brayden swaddled in her arms, nursing from a bottle.

“Ash might be awhile,” Kylie said, her whispered voice carrying a hint of amusement. “She just got in the shower.”

“I figured as much.”

“You want something to drink while you wait?” Dressed in yoga pants and a pale blue tank, she wore her thick hair in a sloppy knot and carried the weary expression of sleep-deprived mother, but she shined forever gorgeous. He had to force himself not to stare. “I’m sure Mom has a beer or two in the fridge.”

“Naw, I’m good.”

He settled into the far end of the sofa, one boot-clad foot on the coffee table, his guitar in his lap. As always whenever they were alone in a room together, an uncomfortable tension filled the air. Part desire, part something akin to loathing, Kylie’s conflicted feelings toward him tied his tongue with nerves. He never knew what to say, always felt as though he should be apologizing to her. For what exactly, he wasn’t sure.

“How was your trip to Florida?” she asked.

“Long.” He and his brother had flown out on Christmas Eve to spend the holidays with their parents. His mother had fussed. His father had grilled him about his business decisions. He had spent as much time as possible out on the water, counting the minutes until he could return home.

“How’s your dad doing?”

“About the same.”

His fingers began to travel along the strings, playing a mindless tune as his thoughts strayed where he didn’t want them to go. James Rogan had looked good physically, his mobility and dexterity both vastly improved by a few months in the Florida sun, but his emotions had been all over the place. Angry one moment, crying the next, he had been accusational, augmentative. Jimmy could only hope his father hadn’t meant half the things he had said over Christmas dinner, but he feared James had spoken from the heart.

“Who taught you how to play?” Kylie asked, pulling him from his wanderings.

“Mom taught me the basics, enough to get me interested, and then she kind of let me do my own thing with it. I think she was looking for a way to keep me out of trouble.”

“Did it work?”

“Not really, but it gave me something to do while I was grounded.” As she laughed, he started playing Phil Keaggy’s “The Wind and the Wheat” to give Kylie a taste of the passion his mother had ignited in him. “I used to put Mom’s old records on and try to imitate what I heard. Drove everyone in the house crazy with all my squelching and squawking while I worked it out, but I didn’t care. I was obsessed.”

“You learned to play that by ear?” she asked in disbelief.

He shrugged. “I guess.”

The way she studied him did crazy things to his heartbeat and tripped up his fingers on the strings. He stilled his hands before he made a fool of himself.

“Does anyone else in your family play?”

“Mom can play any instrument you stick in her hands, and she’s always singing or humming something. Dad’ll sing at church, but that’s about it. Brent’s like Mom, singing all the damn time, but his voice sounds like two cats screwing or something.”

“Jimmy!”

“I don’t know what the hell’s wrong with him.”

Shaking her head, she tried not to laugh. “You’re awful.”

“It’s the truth! Come over sometime when he’s in the shower and you’ll hear exactly what I’m talking about. But when your ears start bleeding, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

With a smile teasing her lips, she shifted her attention to the newborn sleeping in her arms. Gently, she wiggled the near-empty bottle from Brayden’s mouth. He continued suckling in his sleep, letting out only a tiny grunt of discontent when she lifted him to her shoulder.

As Jimmy watched mother and son, a phantom pain clinched deep inside his chest, lighting a fire of fear so hot he desired to run. Even more, he desired to reach out and touch her skin, glowing warm in the soft light of the Christmas tree. Instead, he closed his eyes and started to play the music of the valley.

Lulled by the quiet notes, the engrained movement of his fingers, he almost didn’t hear her say, “That’s beautiful.”

Though it was not his to take credit for, he nodded.

“Haunting, though,” she amended, her voice no more than a whisper. “Kind of painful, in a way?”

She said it as a question, as though unsure whether she had interpreted the music the way it had been written, or the way he had intended it to be heard. He had no desire to influence her perception, so he continued on without answering.

Her body absorbed the rhythm of each song, altering the pace of her rocking chair, the pattern of lazy circles she rubbed along Brayden’s back as he introduced pieces of himself through the music that had healed him.

Only once did she ask, “What’s this one called?”

“The Thoughts of Mary Jane.”

“Ah. A lament to your pot smoking days?”

Unable to match her smile, he gave voice to the lyrics, allowing them to explain what he could not say. She shifted Brayden in her arms and closed her eyes, settling in as she listened. With her no longer watching him, the air in the room expanded, turning the atmosphere fragile. Long after the song ended, he kept his fingers in continuous motion, drifting for as long as she was willing to stay afloat with him.

“You’re good.”

“Thanks.”

“I mean very good. So is your voice. You could play professionally.”

“That’s not my thing.”

“What is your thing?”

He raised one shoulder in a shrug. “What’s yours?”

“My son,” she answered easily.

“Before him?”

She paused for a few heartbeats, her chair falling still as she searched, and then shook her head with a frustrated laugh. “Honestly? I don’t remember. I have no idea what I used to want to do with my life before Bray came along. Everything else seems so unimportant right now, it’s like my dreams never even existed. Is that strange?”

“Why would it be strange?”

“Brayden’s barely two months old. How could I have lost myself so completely in that short amount of time?”

“You didn’t lose yourself, Ky. It’s all still there, just re-prioritized.”

She studied him, her brows knit, gaze intense, before she asked, “Who do you think about when you play?”

He had never intended to share with anyone other than Marissa the part of himself he had tucked into the valley, but something in the vulnerability of Kylie’s voice made him crave to know how it felt to be embraced by her absolute acceptance. From her, he desired intimacy in its entirety, and so he answered her with the truth.

“My daughter.”

“The rumors are true, then?”

“I don’t know what bullshit stories people are telling, but the simple truth is we were seventeen… stupid in our brevity…” His hands still, he ached to ease the tension in his chest with another dance along the strings, but he could no longer remember how to play. “I sold my pickup and bought Missy a ring because I thought that was what she wanted. I never knew for sure if it was. She miscarried before I got a chance to propose. To this day, my dad’s convinced I used that money to pay for an abortion, and nothing I can say or do will ever make him change his mind. I gave up trying long ago.”

Her eyes on Brayden, she asked, “Is that what you wanted? To marry her? Be a family?”

“I used to think I did, but I didn’t love her enough to put her grief before my own. I was too young, too selfish to love anyone back then, let alone be married.”

“What about now?” she asked.

“Now?” He cast a sideways glance to Kylie and answered in all honesty, “I certainly hope so.”

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3 Responses to “Clouds of Doubt”

  1. Niecey Roy-RomanceAuthor March 23, 2013 at 2:34 pm #

    Dang it, Donna, I fall in love with Jimmy more each time I have a peek into his heart! I need more!

  2. Dawn March 27, 2013 at 8:27 am #

    Wow now that was deep and unexpected! At first I was unsure of who it was, but had a feeling it was Jimmy. Your descriptions and attention to detail is what I love best about your writing!

    • Donna March 29, 2013 at 9:08 am #

      Thanks, Dawn. I’m reaching a little to the far edges of my ability with this one, and depressing myself in the process, but Jimmy always felt like a really deep character to me. I wanted to give him the kind of story he deserves. Hopefully I do him justice.

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