I have the great good fortune to be a member of the Shelton College Review. That may be a little less glorious than the name might suggest. This “organization” consists of three local writers: myself, Andrew Spradling, and Joseph Bird. We’ve been meeting regularly for several years now. Among us we have five novels that are or have been in print and some three or four awards for our work from the West Virginia Writers. Andy’s books, some of which are set in places along the South Carolina coast, are starting to have some commercial success in those markets.
We meet weekly on my back porch in the warm months
and in my dining room in the winter and go over what we’ve produced in the intervening seven days. The three of us are long-time friends and our meetings are marked by conversations about anything and everything, not just our writing.
But we do talk about our writing, and sometimes the criticism I get there really moves me to change what I have done. The genius of the group meeting is that sometimes others see what is obvious to everyone but you. My second novel, Overtime, would never have been completed – or even started, for that matter, without the influence and prompting of this group.
If you are a faithful – or even occassional – reader of this blog, you know that the novel I am working on now is about a once grand house that has gone to near ruin in a small town in West Virginia and a woman who puts everything on the line to restore the old mansion to its former glory. There are a couple of love stories involved. One between Isaac Martin and Princess Rebecca in the earliest years of the 20th century and the other between Jacob Eaton and Rachel Thompson (the book’s protagonist) that takes place in the here and now.
In last week’s meeting of the Shelton College Review I presented a section from the book where Jacob and Rachel meet up again, after about a twenty-year separation. This is a bit trite, I know, but it’s something that everyone or nearly everyone can relate to. She rejects him and he goes on to fantastic success but never forgets her. Anyhow, for reasons that you’ll have to read the book to understand, the two of them are back together on one auspicious night in the old mansion that has now been restored.
Everything is perfect – a fire in the hearth; Beethoven being played on the piano; a sumptuous dinner awaiting in the formal dining room. Rachel has put on a beautiful new dress. She comes back down the stairs to meet the ever-adoring Jacob and he sees this vision of the woman of his dreams and he says to her “Hiya! How ya doin’?”
Well. Maybe it wasn’t quite that bad. But my collegues pointed out to me – kindly but firmly – that I had missed the mark. Missed it by a mile. Jacob, who is a very successful lawyer and a Rhodes Scholar to boot and who is still smitten, if not totally decapitated, by this Rachel, would have something more to say than just hello. He would know the right words. He would not let such a moment pass.
And so I went back to the drawing board and rewrote that part of the scene and I have posted the new draft below. If you’ve been reading along with me as I have posted over the last few weeks, you will recognize the first part of this. The new (and I hope improved) part is just at the end of the post. If you want a little more of the back story about Jacob and Rachel, you can find that here and here.
Thanks for reading. Ed.
Rachel could feel the change in mood in the house as the early winter evening fell.
The day had been one of intense activity; of men and women stretching themselves to perform their vocational tasks. The guards had staked out the perimeter of the house, installed cameras, and set up a monitoring station in the first-floor den. They took their shifts sitting before the line of monitors and then walking outside, along the streets and alleys around the house. The workers from Jacob’s firm had been tireless and the inventory of the contents of all the trunks was now completed and their computers and camera all put away.
But now the day was gone and through the long casement windows in the upstairs library Rachel saw the snow begin to whirl and drift down again and settle on the already white lawn and garden below. Now the house was no longer a place of exploration and discovery and labor. Now it would be what it was designed and intended to be – what Rachel imagined that it could be – a place of rest and renewal. She found one member of the security crew who was sitting alone and persuaded him to follow her to the covered porch in the back of the house where they drew split hickory branches from a pile and carried them first the the fireplace in the drawing room where they lit the first fire and then took the remaining wood upstairs to the hearth in the library where they kindled another fire. A couple of the security men had gone at Jacob’s direction to Charleston and collected boxes full of dinner from the finest restaurant there. Rachel unpacked the standing rib roast and the au gratin potatoes, stuffed them into the oven and put the salads and desserts in the refrigerator. As she was putting the widest leaf in the dining table, one of the women from the firm stepped into the room.
“I can see this coming, and I want to be a part of it,” she said. “Can I find a tablecloth and the silver?”
In minutes the two women had the table graced with an embroidered cloth, eight place settings of fine plate and silver, and four tall candles. Rachel assigned the third-floor bedrooms to the women from the law firm and directed the security team to set their cots and bedding in the ballroom. Then she went to the master bedroom, the room she had set up for herself, and bathed and took from the closet the single garment she had bought with the last of her money before learning of the fault in the basement wall. It was a perfect black dress, simple and definite, off the shoulder and hemmed just below the knee. She had bought this dress imagining her first party in the house. The first time she would entertain. This would be the dress she would wear to enter into the new life she had imagined.
Before she was dressed she heard the piano downstairs. One of the men from the security crew was playing Beethoven’s Pathetique. The house was alive and breathing. She looked at herself in the full-length mirror – where had this new energy, this bright, new fullness come from? She could not suppress a smile.
When she came down the staircase she saw that the food had been arranged in silver chafing dishes along the dry sink and cabinets at the front of the dining room. The candles were lit. Jacob met her as she entered the room. She saw that he had made use of the house’s new facilities. He was immaculately groomed and in jacket and tie.
“Do you remember what I said to you before, about telling the truth?” He asked.
She had a good idea about what was coming and now there was no dread of it. “Yes, I do. I remember the idea was that truth ought to be spoken. That it has a good effect. That leaving the truth unsaid is dangerous and wasteful. You can miss opportunities.”
“That’s excellent. Just right. Maybe even better than I said it. I’ll give you an A on that. But now, here is what is true, what ought to be said and what, I am happy to say, falls this time to me to say.”
And Jacob took Rachel’s hand, stepped toward her in time with the piano, and lifted her hand above their heads, as if in a dance. As if in that waltz that he had always been sure was theirs to dance; the dance of life; the dance that would show them both to be what they at their best could be: perfect partners, each anticipating and supporting the other’s every move, thought and emotion; each responding to the other with grace and sympathy and understanding; each of them rapt in the joy of the other. And as he raised her hand high, and as the piano played on so slowly, she without thought or plan turned on her toes beneath and under his outstretched arm and leaned her back against him for one moment in the half-turn and then finished the turn and went a half step back, resting and depending on his firm but gentle grip of her hand and she looked into his face and did not look away and was not afraid of what she knew he was about to say.
“There is no one like you, Rachel. No one.”