“Sometimes I can just use some good news,” Sadie tells me, her cheeks flushed, her eyes watery, a slight quiver to her voice and a tremble in her hands, heavy sigh, “about anything.”
Late August always gets Sadie down. It’s one of those times of year, I can almost mark them on the calendar, when Sadie has a tough go of it, right along with after Christmas and New Year’s once the anticipation of the holidays has faded into torn wrapping paper and empty plastic champagne flutes, the middle of February when Louisville is dead and gray and frozen and it feels like spring will never get here, even the Fourth of July weekend because Sadie can’t stand fireworks ever since the father of one of her friends from growing up blew off his hand putting on a fireworks show in their backyard and she particularly can’t stand people who shoot fireworks well into the next week when she’s trying to sleep. It’s a cycle with Sadie, and when she hits one of these bumps, as we’ve come to call them, it’s hard to pull her through.
I hate to see Sadie like this. I hate to see Sadie sad, and when I can’t do anything about it, nothing more than to hold her, like some bulky, scratchy, stadium blanket, and tell her that everything is going to be alright. I want to do more. I want to take the brunt of these bumps. I want to experience the full impact, to absorb them so that Sadie is no longer burdened. I want to understand them, to really understand them because maybe then I can really do something, anything to return Sadie to her cheery, happy way. But maybe Sadie isn’t cheery and happy, maybe that’s what she uses to cover what’s underneath, and when she hits a bump it all comes spilling out.
Sadie has talked to someone about this before, some dour social worker with doe eyes and a nondescript hairstyle that girl from work recommended, in an office in a converted townhouse in the East End littered with overstuffed throw pillows stitched with positive affirmations and smelling like cinnamon potpourri, a poster of the Serenity Prayer tacked to the back of the door and the faint strands of NPR wafting in from the waiting room. I went with her once or twice but neither of us got much out of it, and eventually Sadie stopped going altogether, said it was weird having that woman glare at her, with those doe eyes, pursed lips, expressionless, waiting for her to come up with the answers. Sadie thought that if she could come up with the answers she wouldn’t need the dour social worker to begin with, and I had to agree, but when I suggested someone else, someone who could prescribe a pill, just to take the edge off, “we all need to take the edge off,” Sadie said she was done with that, talking like that, and she worried if she blunted the bumps with medication something else would take their place, and what if that something else was way worse than the bumps? “I don’t want to risk it, buddy,” Sadie confided to me. “I can’t.”
So I am left to try to figure out these bumps myself, to find what triggers them other than the calendar because it has to be more than that, yet I still haven’t had much success, and I still haven’t pinpointed what it is about late August that gets Sadie down, although I have my theories. Sadie hates back-to-school, hated it as a kid and hates it now, hates it because it means the carefree days of summer vacation are over, not that our days these days are carefree, but it’s the idea of that, the idea that days could be carefree, what Sadie and I see in the clusters of children we pass in the neighborhood on our drive in to work each morning, gathered at the street corners, new clothes, new squeaky sneakers, new full backpacks, new experiences awaiting them, a whole wide world ahead, jumping up and down and shouting and fidgeting and laughing for no discernible reason other than they are children and that’s what they do, anxious parents hovering about to make sure they climb aboard the right lumbering yellow bus. Sadie and I see them every morning knowing we can never be anxious parents, knowing we can’t have children, no matter what we’ve tried or the so-called experts we’ve met with or when all else has failed how much we’ve prayed. We have come to accept that it will just be the two of us, alone and together, and that’s okay, or we lie to each other that that’s okay, with Sadie casually mentioning to me one evening, apropos of nothing, and completely unexpected and equally unconvincing, her words lingering like an echo in a cellar, “I don’t really mind not having babies if that’s how it’s gonna be.” It isn’t okay, and maybe that’s where this bump comes from.
Late August always takes me back to when Sadie and I first met, at college, thirty-some years ago, standing outside of Wannamaker waiting for our freshman dorm assignments, when my cheap nylon knapsack decided at the most inopportune moment to split at the seams, belching out a semester’s supply of toothpaste and razor blades and contact lens solution, and a box of extra-large condoms and a tube of KY jelly my buddies had given me as a going away gag that I packed anyway for some reason, all of it everywhere, and everyone ignoring me and my plight, except for Sadie, this girl I had seen, the first person I met, when my dad dropped me off to find a parking spot for the unwieldy box truck he rented to move me the eight hours from home, on her knees beside me, her typically tousled and then-blonde hair—which she claimed was bleached from the sun and I, later, much later, once we were comfortable enough that I was certain I could get away with it, teased was bleached from a bottle—in long curls in her face, laughing hysterically and goading me to laugh with her, a joke only we shared, helping me to wrangle my shit. We had everything then, and nothing to lose. We could have done whatever we wanted. And if Sadie thinks about it like I do, reflecting on those days, now gone forever, when possibilities were endless and life was limitless, before reality had its way, maybe that’s the reason for her bump.
Or maybe it’s her birthday, creeping up in a couple of weeks, and while Sadie insists she loves her birthday, sees it as her own personal holiday and wishes every day could be her birthday, she let slip last week over a bottle of Sonoma-Cutrer during half-price wine night at Lou Lou’s that there’s something sobering about becoming a year older and being that much further removed from who you used to be. “We’ll never be who we were!” she proclaimed, rushed and wide-eyed, a sort of epiphany, amplified by the half-price wine. Sadie has started to lose people close to her, people she cared for, people who had been constants, who she always assumed would always be there, who have up and broken down and crumbled apart and withered away before her eyes, who she never imagined leaving, not like that, with a final gasp and gone, forever. It’s the alignment of those occurrences that’s to blame for the latest bump, my theory at least, one of many. All I can do is conjecture and speculate and guess because whenever I ask Sadie she snaps at me, uncharacteristically, and questions why she needs a reason to be sad, why she needs to explain, why it isn’t enough that she’s sad and can’t I leave it at that. And I can, and I do, I leave it at that, as I try, to myself, to understand, because I hate to see Sadie sad.
I still haven’t pinpointed what it is about late August that gets Sadie down, although I have my theories.
“All I want is some good news,” Sadie repeats, her face half-lit by the flickering pale bulb above the garage, taking the glass of water I bring her as I join her outside on the back stoop, at three-something in the morning, where Sadie has retreated after tossing and turning for most of the night because as much as I tried to hold onto her in bed, with how her bumps were, and the air conditioner even in our modest Cape Cod unable to cool the second floor during such a muggy spell, it became too stifling, and Sadie had to get up, and get out. So we sit on the back stoop of our house just as we did in college when we would meet late at night on the concrete back patio of Wannamaker to sneak a cigarette from Hank’s stash and stare up at the starry sky imagining what it would be like to be somebody else before that dick RA yelled at us to get inside because it was past curfew.
“I know,” I say to Sadie, watching her delicately sip the water, those dimples, and I move a thick brown lock of hair out of her face. “Good news is coming all the time,” I try to convince her, to convince me, “could be you have to wait a little longer for it is all.”
“Yeah,” Sadie concedes, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand and setting the glass down at her feet with a clink. She leans her head on my shoulder, and exhales, then, softer, towards the far end of the yard, darkened and mysterious, “But the waiting wears me down after a while.”
Sadie says she’s tired, but she can’t sleep, and she’s tired of a lot of things, but she doesn’t know what exactly, and she can’t wait for October because she likes pumpkin beer and trick-or-treaters and the smell of falling leaves in the crisp autumn air, but that now it’s just so hard, that everything is so hard, and she doesn’t know why because it never used to be like this, so hard, and there’s a dull dingy sheen over everything, and she’s feeling gravity’s pull more than ever, and she can’t snap out it of like she used to. My throat is dry, and I want a glass of water, and my heart sinks, dense and heavy like a two-ton weight. I’m pissed at myself for not being able to figure this out, and I’m pissed at Sadie for having these bumps, and I’m pissed even more at myself for thinking that way because Sadie can’t help it, and I can’t help her. All I know to do is pull her closer, and kiss her wherever my lips meet her face, and let her fall asleep against me, and I manage to fall asleep too, until the stray rays of sun peeking through the evergreen on the other side of the warped wooden fence and the neighbor’s ridiculous Pomeranian who was let out to take a dump and found a squirrel to chase and bark at wake us. Sadie gently stirs to life and she’s beautiful, she’s perfect. I wish she understood that. I wish that would make a difference with the bumps.
I offer to cook banana pancakes for breakfast, on the cast iron griddle we got as a wedding present, with thick-cut pieces of pink country ham from the farmers market down the street and French Roast coffee in the Fiestaware mugs we bought at that outlet mall in Pigeon Forge when we were there for our anniversary. Sadie smiles, still sad behind her eyes but smiles still, and says, “Yes,” and “that sounds good, buddy.” So I get up and go into the kitchen, and we start to begin our day, as I wish for this bump to go away.
Before the Razor
Inside the Creative Process of “Bumps”
“Bumps” began when I had the first line of the story – “sometimes I can just use some good news” – stuck in my head, for weeks it seemed. I wasn’t even sure how it got there, but undoubtedly entirely subconsciously. Summer was ending, and it was probably a gloom day, and it just stuck. So I decided to write a story around it, maybe that would get it out of my head.
That’s how I usually come up with things to write about – from a line, or a circumstance, or I might even have what I think would make a cool title for a piece. These bursts of inspiration can happen anywhere, in the shower, on a long run, just whenever. Then I immediately have to put pen to paper – I’m old, and still compose, at least the first draft, with pen and paper. Often, when I set out to write, I don’t know what the story will be about, or how it will end, or if it will even be a story at all (I also write plays). As a result, there are a lot of unfinished drafts in my files – with what I feel are absolutely splendid beginnings, but, alas, no endings,
But “Bumps” was one of those stories I didn’t have any trouble finishing. I knew that I wanted it to be another of my “Sadie Stories” – a collection of short stories that chronicles a couple through the course of their life together, from when they first met in college standing in line for their freshmen dorm assignments, all the way through the detours and road blocks life has thrown their way. In “Bumps,” they have slipped into a rut as the years have passed. It’s also a story about watching someone you love struggle with something, and the frustration of not being able to fix it. “Bumps” moved me when I wrote it, and it continues to move me as a re-read it – and it just began by that one line I couldn’t get out of my head.