What’s in an Ending?

— THE END —

Oh the pleasure of pounding those words onto the end of a story. Whether it took four, eight or twelve drafts, three months or six years, the story is over, ended, and the rest is up to the reader. When I finished final edits on my first novel, Running Toward Home, I envisioned all of the characters in that novel climbing onto a bus. As the bus ground its gears and chugged off into the sunset —I’m a poor author, my imaginary busses are all a little decrepit— one character made his way to the back and waved goodbye. I blew Corey a kiss and wished him good luck.

It is rare for me to begin a story with the ending clearly in sight. In fact, one of the pleasures of writing is in following the tape as it plays out in my mind, following my characters even when their footsteps are barely visible in the snow. But not to pretend that it’s all a mystical journey, there comes a point when I know it’s time to rein in even the bossiest character and hand her the bus ticket.

I love mysteries, particularly the creepy stories of the likes of Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, and a number of other favourite British authors who do “creepy” so very well, and get great satisfaction from the ending that gives up the secrets and brings the suspense to a close. But my preference in literary fiction is the “open ending”, the one that leaves room to speculate on what happened next; sometimes even what happened within the story.

I write with a straightforward style and in my self-critical moments, I’ve felt that there is often a too definite a resolution. Have I really left room for the reader to own the story?
What I’ve learned after two novels, a collection of short stories and the somewhat strange hybrid of non-fiction, memoir, and fiction that became The Boy, is that I should be prepared for at least a dozen different interpretations of the story, and in particular in the ending.

A friend, after reading the stories in A Crack in the Wall, phoned and asked why I seemed to be incapable of writing anything but depressing fiction. Depressing? I thought all of my fiction had at least traces of humour, and a crumb of hope in the ending. “Nope,” said the cranky voice on the other end of the conversation, “everybody you write about is drowning. Could you at least throw them a rope that they can reach?” So much for the light touch and twinkle of redemption.

In the final scene in Delivery “the ferry slides away with from the dock with two long mournful pulls of the whistle.” To me, it’s clear that where we last see each of the characters, answers the big question and earns —THE END— Apparently not, because at least half of the readers I’ve met at book clubs have sputtered over the ending. Well? Did she keep the baby? Is she going to give her up? Are Jack and his nasty wife going to raise her? I’ve learned it’s best to just ask, “What do you think? How do you think it ends, and how would you like it to end?” When I don’t like the answer to my question, because I know the best way for that story to end, I remind myself of the bus, and that the reader shaking the book at me really does own it now.

The Boy raises countless questions. Why the complicated structure? Why write a fictional version of the story alongside the true version? Do I believe that Robert Raymond Cook was innocent? Probably the most difficult question: Why did I write this book?
But for once, at least where the fiction is concerned, I felt compelled to spell out the fate of young Daniel Peters in the most definite of summaries. “He will hold down a job in a welding shop, find someone to love, and look ruefully back in his old age on the years he wasted as a punk. In the end, his family will claim him.” The fiction is there because the only way I could endure writing the true story, was to offer a different ending, a form of redemption.

I seem to have drifted to non-fiction and particularly memoir recently, and I wonder if it’s all about control. I may encounter readers who feel the story isn’t complete, but there is no way that I will countenance anyone playing loose and fast with the stops and starts of my own life.
—THE END—

Here’s a Story

I haven’t picked up the pen except for doodling for quite some time. Not writers’ block — which I think is simply a misnomer for many of the reasons the ink stops flowing — but a succession of events that finally wore me down. I’ve been resting, and healing with the help of my beautiful family, friends, a good family physician, a therapist, and a church that has given me a soft place to fall. That’s enough said, because the good news is that in December I wrote a short story. One that came together at the request of a friend and three words she provided.

“Ebenezer” became part of an amazing year-long gift Juleta Severson-Baker planned for her dad, and I am honoured to have been asked to contribute. The story is dedicated to David Severson, and I am oh, so grateful to Juleta Severson-Baker for challenging me to make something of “orchid”, “limpet”, and “Lutheran.”

Ebenezer

by Betty Jane Hegerat

Oren is ignoring the doorbell. He only answers the door when he’s expecting someone, which is almost never. Astrid has her own key to the house. Forty years old and the girl still carries a key to the little bungalow where she grew up.
Four ding-dongs now. The Jehovahs, the Mormons, the guy who wants to tell Oren the shingles on his roof are curled and he could fix that in a jiff, his Ace Roofing truck out front at the ready. None of these people are that persistent. And if Astrid has left her key at home, she’s got a phone in her pocket and would be ringing his other bells to tell him to let her in.

Karen Ludwig is on Oren’s doorstep. She’d slip her card in the mailbox and follow up later to ask if she can visit, but when Astrid came to the church, the concern about her dad spilled out in such a rush that Karen thought for a moment the woman would grab her arm, pull her outside and propel her down the street to the grey stucco house on the corner. What would a depressed man, a non-believer his daughter described him, do with a calling card from the church? Straight into recycling with the wallop of junk mail that looks as though it’s been accumulating for a week.
She is cradling this orchid in her arms and the crackling plastic sleeve around it is no match for the cold. She punches the doorbell with her mittened hand. Last try.

Five rings? Oren takes a deep breath, exhales a mighty sigh, bookmarks his page, pushes out of the chair and walks just far enough so that he can see the front step from the window without being seen himself. Jesus Henry Campbell! Now what? There’s a woman in a red coat on his doorstep, stamping her feet to keep warm, and trying to shelter a gangly potted plant in her arms. Christmas is past, this plant is no poinsettia, and if it’s a floral delivery, someone in their circle of friends has forgotten that Ruth hasn’t lived here over two years. Purely out of curiosity as to who would be stupid enough to transport a plant in a useless plastic wrapping on a day with wind-chill factor minus thirty, he opens the door just far enough to tell this visitor that she’s ringing the wrong bell
The red-coated, rosy-cheeked woman gives the door a good push with her foot, thrusts the plant into the warmth and steps in. “Mr Berg?” Then, without a pause for him to reply, “I hope I’m not intruding.” She sets the plant on the floor, slips off a mitten and holds out her hand. “I’m Pastor Karen, Karen Ludwig from the church down the street?”
And you are here …. why? He takes back the hand that extended automatically to meet her cold fingers. Still silent, he folds his arms, and is reminded by the cuffs of his grey sweatshirt that he’s still wearing pyjama pants as well. It must be after noon by now, but he wasn’t expecting company.

Karen is no stranger to lukewarm reactions when she makes a visit without calling first. “Astrid asked me to stop by. Do you mind if I come in and chat for a few minutes?” Mr. Berg’s arms drop to his sides, a good enough sign that she unties her boots and puts them on the plastic tray beside the door. She unbuttons her coat but leaves it on, not wanting to give the impression that she plans to stay for the afternoon. He steps aside and gestures toward the living room. She’s on her way to the wide-armed rocking chair he’s pointed out when she remembers to go back for the orchid. “I brought a … a plant. I popped into the grocery store on my way to my work this morning, and couldn’t resist. How could I leave the only orchid on a clearance table of plants to sit there, orphaned?

She grins. Not that sad smile he gets from people who hear that he’s retired now as well as divorced. All alone in his house. That look makes Oren feel he too is on a clearance table. No, this Pastor Karen flashes an honest to God grin. Her blonde hair is pinned behind her ears with doodads of some sort, and one of her brown eyes is slightly smaller than the other, giving her face a slightly off-kilter look. She’s lifted the plant out of its plastic sleeve and sets it down on the coffee table.. Clearance table or not, this is an extravagant gift from a stranger just dropping in to say hello to a stranger
“Very nice,” he says. Once she’s seated in his reading chair, he takes his TV watching place on the sofa. The orchid has two flower stalks; on one a waxy blossom is fully open and there are four more that will open soon; the buds on the other stalk are still closed tight. If the time on the doorstep hasn’t shocked it, this plant will bloom for many months. “But isn’t there someone in your flock who needs this more than I do?”
She shrugs. “I think everyone should have something beautiful to rest their eyes on, don’t you? I decided that this plant was meant for the next person I visited and that just happened to be you.”

She’s lying. the orchid wasn’t on sale. She bought it yesterday at the end of a day full of sadness. One of those days when she’d felt as if all the sorrows of all her parishioners and all the people in all the world had filled her office and overflowed into the sanctuary where she’d gone to pray because it was all she could do. She wanted to pound her fist on the altar rail and shout to get His attention, but instead she whispered her prayers, and then sat down at the piano and played until she was alone in the dusk. The orchid, when she spotted it on a table next to a display of pineapples at the grocery store, was one of many, but this creamy-coloured one seemed to be beckoning, calling her to remember the beauty in the world. To set it on her table as a reminder of from where her help springs. An Ebenezer; the word leaps to mind and ta-da! She has the key to the sermon she’ll preach on Sunday. Old Testament sermons are always her greatest challenge. An Ebenezer —that will work in beautifully.
But this morning, rested, grateful that she had a quiet day ahead – so far – she decided that she’d take more pleasure in giving the plant away than in letting it suffer the fate of other plants she’s been given over the years. Her thumbs are the wrong colour. They’d do better, she thinks, buttoning the coats of small children.

“So, Astrid sent you. Did she have a special mission in mind? Told you I was alone, depressed, never left the house?” He gestures toward the frost-etched windows.” I get all the fresh air I need just shovelling the walks. Best thing about retirement is that I don’t have to leave the house, especially on a day like this. ”
She asks the obvious question. What did he do for a living before he retired? “I’m a plumber,” he told her. “All my working life I’ve been a plumber, that’s about forty-five years now. Wouldn’t you say I’ve put in enough honest labour?” He doesn’t tell her he owned the shop, inherited from his dad who was also a plumber for forty-five years. He lets the pastor imagine him climbing into cupboards under kitchen sinks, instead of answering the phone and sending his guys out to do the work. Although, he’s tempted to tell that he and four of the boys from work have a poker night once a month, here at his house. But it’s not quite true. They’ve had one poker night and said they’d do it again some time soon, but no has called to suggest the next date, and neither has Oren felt motivated to drag out the calendar.

Karen’s trying to take in details of the room and what she can see of the kitchen beyond with being too obviously snoopy. This is a clean home, tidy, and with small touches that suggest that Mr. Berg is neither oblivious to where he lives, nor too depressed to care. There’s a lovely water colour of a wheat field on the wall behind the sofa. The candy dish on the coffee table is full of wrapped candies, and on the table beside her, a shiny blue bowl holds a collection of sea shells. No dust, no clutter.
Mr. Berg is clean-shaven, dressed in the kind of comfortable clothing Karen would be wearing if she were home on this frigid day. At a loss for conversation about plumbing, she asks about interests he plans to pursue now that he’s retired. Will he travel? He shakes his head, says he and his wife never were much interested in globe-trotting, and he’s even less interested now. But when Astrid was growing up, they did make regular trips to Prince Edward Island to visit Ruth’s family. Those were good times.

Oren doesn’t mention they would have been better times without the in-laws. Ruth’s parents were both university professors, strident atheists, and had higher hopes for their daughter than marriage to a plumber. One who’d grown up in a small town in Saskatchewan in a tribe of Lutheran “folk.” The pastor wants to know more about those times, and although he was about to offer coffee, Oren changes his mind, concerned that if she gets too comfortable, she’s going to want the whole damn family history.
“Now Astrid, she seems to have been bit by the travel bug.” He’s trying to steer the conversation away from himself. “She’s off to some new destination every year. She has a girlfriend she travels with.” Maybe “girlfriend” wasn’t the best choice of word. Will the pastor think Astrid is a lesbian? He wonders where the Lutheran church stands on the whole gay question. He’ll have to ask his brother.

There’s a neat stack of library books on the table next to this chair Karen is sitting in. She tips her head slightly to read down the row of spines: Grey Mountain by John Grisham on top has a book mark protruding; A Brief History of Beer in Canada; Mr Hockey by Gordie Howe. She glances up. “I’m sorry, Mr. Berg. I’m snooping. I’m always curious about what people read.”

“Please call me Oren,” he says. “The only people who call me Mr. Berg are people who are trying to sell me something.” Just to make it clear that he’s not buying if she has any notion of drawing him back into the fold. She carefully picks a shell from the bowl on the table, the last remains of the sea glass and shells that Astrid brought home every summer when they made that trek to PEI.
By the time Astrid was a teenager, Oren stayed behind and let Ruth and Astrid go out alone. He’s sure his mother-in-law in particular was happier with just the two she felt belonged to her. He did miss those long walks on the beach with Astrid after the tide went out; the two of them crouched at a pool, Astrid wanting to dip her small hand into the water and pluck out everything she saw. “We don’t disturb the living creatures,” he’d told her there, and as they walked along the beach, Astrid wanting to collect everything that was her brand of pretty, and take it home in her plastic bucket. “We only take home the empty shells.”
“These must be souvenirs of your trips to the east coast,” Pastor Karen says, turning the shell between her fingertips. “Are they all limpets?” He nods, tells about Astrid’s fascination with limpets. They looked like little hats, was the only reason she gave. Astrid’s kept another bowl of shells and sea glass on her own table.

Karen looks up from the shell. Oren’s gaze seems fixed on the window. Is he wondering how much longer she plans to stay? Or remembering. “It’s good,” she says, “to hold onto remarkable little things that sing to us about what’s been important in our lives.” This time she says the word aloud, hoping she doesn’t sound like a preacher. “Ebenezers.” There is a moment, maybe two or three, of silence, and then Oren leans forward on the sofa. She smiles at him. “Not old Scrooge,” she says. “Biblically, Ebenezers are things that remind us of God’s presence or hope. In my life I’ve collected a lot of reminders, things that return me to moments when I’ve felt blessed.”

Then, to Oren’s astonishment, and obviously Pastor Karen’s as well, his mouth opens and out pours a hymn, or fragments of a hymn from some deep recess in his memory. Here I raise mine Ebenezer; hither by thy help I’m come. He’s pleased that he hasn’t lost the voice. Although he hated it when he was conscripted into the church choir when he was fourteen because they had a serious lack of male voices. In fact, that may have been what finally gave him the courage to put his pillow over his head on Sunday mornings and tell his mom he was old enough to choose for himself and he was not going to church.

Karen’s lips are parted. Another moment and she’s afraid she might have joined him in song. But she’s quite sure he isn’t raising his voice in praise. “Mr. Berg … Oren, Astrid told me that your family has no religious ties. She said she was asking me to visit you because she knew that was something pastors do, and because the church is so close by.” She doesn’t tell him that Astrid made it very clear that if Karen made any overture that came close to proselytizing; Oren would quickly and politely see her to the door. She’d been so adamant that Karen had almost declined, but the reason she didn’t was because Astrid was so adamant about her dad’s depression. So far, she sees no signs of depression. “How do you know that hymn?” she asks. “Come Now Font of Every Blessing isn’t exactly on the top ten list of popular sacred songs.”

Oren sighs. “Astrid must have stored some family history in a corner of her brain, same as I stored Come Thou Font. I grew up well-churched. In the Lutheran Church no less. Baptized, Sunday schooled, confirmed, very briefly a member of the choir, and then like a whole lot of other young people, I went away. But unlike some other people, I never came back.” Astrid knew that her uncle, Oren’s brother, attended church with his family in the same rural Saskatchewan church where Oren had sung his lungs out and held that Ebenezer high. Never knowing, though, what the heck it was he was holding. What Astrid didn’t know was that if Oren had married someone other than Ruth, he and that other wife may well have taken their children to church – baptized, Sunday school, confirmation, the full course meal. All Astrid knew of religion came from the curled lips of her mother and grandparents.

Normally, this might be the time a pastor compared Oren’s Lutheran childhood with her own. They would laugh over memories of some of the worst Christmas concerts ever, and the misery of squirming through sermons without end.
But Karen’s early years were nothing like Oren’s. Karen’s early religious experience was limited to the CGIT meetings she attended with a friend at a United Church. Unfortunately, nothing much of Canadian Girls in Training stayed with her. Her friend’s mother slapped her face when Karen said she wasn’t interested in going to CGIT anymore. Rudely, boldly, totally out of character for timid little Karen Ludwig, she’d told the woman that she’d decided to go the church of Rock and Roll. She cringes even now when thinks of that declaration. And yet, she believes that the drinking, the drugs, the bad boyfriends, and the abortion that turned things around, were a necessary part of the journey.
Karen’s mom had wailed and railed against the path she was traveling . But oddly, she was aghast when Karen told her she’d fallen as far as she could fall and a hand had reached down to pull her up. Surely, her mother had said, she could pull up her own self without imagining the hand of Jesus. Through university, sobriety, seminary, dear Mom had just shaken her head. At Karen’s ordination, she’d finally said the words “proud” and “good for you.”
Karen has wandered so far in memory, she shakes her head to bring herself back to Oren Berg’s living room.

Oren has drifted into pondering where a life of church-going, a life of faith in practice might have taken him. But he knows the right response. What is, is. The pastor too, looks as though she’s left the room. When she looks at him, a shake of her head quivers through her body like a tremor. Given the new information that Oren has Lutheran citizenship, is she preparing to embark on that real pastoral visit he anticipated as soon as he let the orchid through the door? Sorry, Karen Ludwig. Not going to happen. Probably time for a signal that the chat has gone as far – farther even – than he was prepared to go. And yet oddly, he’s not anxious for her to leave.

Karen holds the limpet shell in the palm of her hand and imagines the lapping of waves, a beach swept clean by the tide. There is an analogy here, not quite clear to her yet, that she will use in a sermon on one of those Sundays when she finds herself sharing bits of her personal life. She carefully stirs the shells in the bowl with her finger, and as she is about to return the one in her hand to the collection, Oren rises up off the sofa. “Wait,” he says. He goes out to the kitchen, and returns with a wide-mouthed empty prescription vial. “Let me give you some of these in exchange for the orchid,” and he carefully slides a half dozen shells into the bottle. Karen snaps the lid onto the vial and cups it in her hands. This visit will not end in a spoken prayer, but she can tell from Oren’s eyes that he can read her silence. And she knows it is time for her to go.

The pastor stands and buttons her red coat, slips the gift of shells into her pocket, and stretches out her hand. When Oren’s fingers meet hers, they are warm, and the handshake is firm. She pauses next to the coffee table, puts a finger tip to one of the buds on the newest stalk, and nods.
In the kitchen, Oren watches her pull on her boots and turn up the collar on her coat. Their words tangle in a “Thank you” spoken at the same time. Then Oren adds, “God bless.” He wants her to know that her visit was not a lost cause. He won’t be going down to the church on the corner on Sunday morning, but even so, he wants her to know that he does believe. Perhaps he’ll talk with Astrid later this afternoon. He’ll tell her to please not solicit any other callers for him. And sometime soon, he may also tell her what he believes. Karen Ludwig exits in a whoosh of cold wind, turns toward him one more time on the step, and smiles.
Oren is surprised when he looks at the clock. She’s been here for almost two hours. Whatever the limpet shells will mean to her, they never were an “Ebenezer” to him. But that orchid. He’s good with plants, and he knows he can keep it alive.

Back in her office at the church, Karen empties the vial of sea shells into a small dish that also holds small smooth stones—one of her own collections. The label on the prescription bottle has not escaped her notice. As sure she as she is that she will never see Oren in the pews at one of her worship services, she is sure that she will not be able to stop herself from dropping by to see him again. But not too soon.

Oh, for the love of …. short story!

 

In 2008, I graduated from UBC’s Optional Residency Creative Writing program in the company of wickedly talented writers, several of whom were published very soon after that walk across the convocation stage. In quick succession, Sarah Selecky, Amy Jones and Matthew Trafford’s collections of short fiction hit the ground running. As a group, they declared 2011 the year of the short story, YOSS which I can never say without adding YES! http://yoss2011.com/

Sarah Selecky: This Cake is for the Party
Amy Jones: What Boys Like
Matthew Trafford: The Divinity Gene

and notably as well, Zsuszi Gartner, instructor of Short Story and mentor extraordinaire to many: Better Living Through Plastic Explosives

I’m quite sure I’ve missed some of the brilliant graduates of 2008 and 2009 and their books, and I offer an apology to not only those with short fiction collections but those with novels (one of those being my own, Delivery), non-fiction and poetry born out of the UBC experience.

I believe that every year since 2010 has been a YOSS. Numerous of my Alberta and Saskatchewan writing friends and colleagues have kept that lamp lit, and I believe the love of short story will shine on.

I’ve been asked many times which of my books is my “favourite”, which is as impossible to answer as which of my children is my favourite. All of them, for who they are and the joy they bring to my life. And the books, all of them because of the memories and moments in my life through which they were conceived. If pressed, though, my default response is A Crack in the Wall because the stories were written (and endlessly rewritten) over the course of almost twenty years, and each one of them has a secret at its heart that is mine alone.

I am blushingly reluctant to promote my own work – and grateful to have had the never-flagging support and promotion of Susan Toy since she introduced herself to me at a reading just prior to the release of Delivery. Up waltzes a woman with a huge smile who extends a hand and says, “Hi, Betty Jane. I’m your sales rep.” I didn’t know I had one! “And our mutual friend Vicki Bell” (another gifted UBC classmate) “told me that I must hear you read.”

But. Recently, two books clubs have invited me to their discussion of A Crack in the Wall and a lovely review appeared out of the blue, long after I’d come to accept that the book had gone to grass. A phrase I steal frequently from the title of another writer/colleague, Jean McKay who I met at at Sage Hill.

So. I urge you seek out the work of the UBC authors I’ve mentioned as well as that of a number of my talented friends : Audrey Whitson, Astrid Blodgett, Lori Hahnel, Barb Howard, Lee Kvern, Dora Dueck, Leona Theis, Dave Margoshes. And I know, once again, that I’ve missed some names and I offer my apology.

Now. After this lengthy prologue, I am going to step over the wall of my self-promo handicap and offer an excerpt from one of the stories in A Crack in the Wall, because of course I want you to seek out my work as well.

 

 

Burned

Val had just picked her way through a gang of kids in the parking lot of the housing project and was fumbling for her key when the door in the adjoining unit
flew open. A young woman, thin as a pencil, with a long neck and a head of greenish blonde tufts more like feathers than hair, stepped out.

“Hey, you’re Josh’s mom, right?”

Just once Val wanted to come home and put her feet up without answering to the world for her son. She set the bags of groceries on the concrete step and folded her
arms across the front of her tired uniform. “That’s me.”

This little gal was wearing a uniform too. A frilly apron over a black skirt that just covered her ass, and a black and white polka dot blouse.  She looked almost as young as Josh. Not at all what Val had expected. She’d envisioned someone more like the poster on the inside of Josh’s closet door.

“There’s two little kids and a . . . a girl,” Josh had mumbled the day the new people moved in. His ears glowed red, and he frowned. He’d run out to snoop when he saw the U-haul backing up to the townhouse, and rattled his skateboard up and down the parking strip while they unloaded. Since then, Val had worked eight straight days and by the time she got home from a shift at the nursing home she wasn’t interested in jumping on the Welcome Wagon.

“Does he babysit?”    …

“Josh?” Val felt her eyebrows take flight. It was only a few months since she’d reluctantly given her son a key instead of sending him to her sister’s after school.
She had nightmares about coming home to a smoldering square of rubble. “Oh no. He’s never looked after a baby.”

“Well, does he want to?”

Val blew out a long breath and shook her head. “He hasn’t been around many little kids. And he has a lot of homework.” She could imagine the look on the math
teacher’s face if Josh told him he’d failed a test because he had a job.   …

“I’d pay him good, and I won’t be too late. I’m kinda desperate here.”

“You mean right now?” Val glanced at her own door.

She could hear the electronic racket of Nintendo. Josh battling his way past the Big Boss of some mythical empire.

“No, my mom looks after them when I’m at work.
I need him Saturday.”    …

 ***

Jerry was as predictable as ever. “Look, Val, I can’t have the kid this weekend. I got an out-of-town job. How about we skip this once and I’ll pick him up in
two weeks.”
She curled her tongue over her front teeth. The icy cold pop had set up a dull ache in that cavity she was trying to ignore. “Maybe it’s just as well. He’s got a
job for Saturday night. What do you think about Josh babysitting?”

“Why not? When I was fourteen I was helping my dad on a construction site.”

“This job doesn’t come with a hammer. We’ve got a new neighbour with two kids. You’d trust Josh with a baby?”

“How hard can it be to look after a baby for a couple of hours?”

Val raised the glass of ice cubes to her forehead.    …

She’d been prepared for a flat refusal when Josh heard Tonya’s offer, or an indifferent shrug and a quick return to Mortal Kombat, but not for the big-eyed whoop of
delight.

“Really? Oh man, that would be sweet! Devin babysits and he makes mega-bucks every weekend.”

“Devin? Oh, well then.” Why would she worry about Josh if someone, anyone had entrusted a child to Devin? He was Josh’s only friend, but Val wouldn’t have
given Devin responsibility for a turnip.

The next day after school, Val sent Josh to tell Tonya he could sit for her on Saturday night. When supper was ready and he still wasn’t back, she went out and rang
the bell. Josh answered, with the baby on his hip, the three-year-old, Travis, wrapped around his leg, and a grin that stretched from one blushing ear to the other.

“Tonya wanted me to stay and get to know the kids. We’re like hanging out in the living room, building stuff while she takes a break.”

“Two hours should be plenty. You look like a pro. Supper’s ready.”

“Yeah, but Tonya’s sleeping, and Travis says they’re hungry and he wants me to make grilled cheese. Only there’s no cheese and no bread. Do you think I should
open a can of soup?”

“I think their mom can make their supper.”

Same floor plan as her place. Val scooped up the kids, one on each arm, and stomped up the stairs to the master bedroom. She banged on the door with her
knee, then cracked it open just enough to herd the kids through.

“Josh is coming home for supper now, Tonya. Bye bye!”       …

“Did she say anything about paying you for today?” Val asked as she pulled him out Tonya’s door and back through their own. She’d been cleaning the bathroom when he left and
hadn’t noticed that he’d changed into his khakis and button-up shirt. His hair was different too. Instead of swooping low over his forehead, it was spiked into a
ridge from hairline to crown. He looked painfully like a rooster. …

continued on pg 126  A Crack in the Wall, Oolichan Books 2008

What Shall I Call Thee

“you give a dog a bad name, and that dog is bad for life.”
——Eleanor Catton The Luminaries

Dogs are dogs but names do matter. I won’t take time, though, to speculate on how the naming of a child can influence his life, because I know for sure that the names we gave our children were exactly right, because they came so easily. But naming stories and books does not come easily for me. In fact, I’ve been known to put proposed titles out to committee, or to at least one other person who knows the work I’m struggling to name, and whose own titles are inspiring.

Stories have never been as difficult as books, because the very size of them makes it easier to find the phrase, the key word, the idea that set the story in my motion. In all of the books on writing I’ve read and used in my teaching, the only one I’ve found that discusses titles and does so with clarity and wise advice is Fred Stenson’s The Craft of Fiction, Thing feigned or imagined. And I go back to that book frequently, and refer other writers to it frequently as well.

Occasionally, a story or even a novel has its conception in the title, and there is nothing an editor can say to convince me that this “working title” should not be the one that graces the cover of the book, or the entry into the story. One story in particular in my short story collection, A Crack in the Wall, landed feet first in my mind as “The Way She Ate Oranges.” And so too did “A Crack in the Wall” which became the title of the collection because it worked as subtext in all of the sixteen stories. Other titles in the collection benefited from the fine eye of Dave Margoshes, with whom I worked on the final editing and the ordering of the stories. Who can argue with a man who has titled some of his own books such intriguing titles: Pornography and Other Stories; A Book of Great Worth; God Telling a Joke. Each of these are also titles of stories within the collections, but as titles for the books, arresting and maybe just a bit audacious.

It was Dave to whom I whined about not being able to find a title that would do my first novel justice. This was a book about a boy caught up in the child welfare system, a boy who was a chronic runaway. My several suggestions included “Running” (dismissed as having the potential to end up on health and fitness sections shelves in bookstores) and several others that Dave decreed all sounded like “lyrics from a bad Bob Dylan song.” Then he asked the critical questions, the same question that Corey claimed he couldn’t answer. Why does this boy keep running away? Back to my social work years and the familiar wisdom that a child is either running away from something or toward something. How obvious —Running Toward Home.

The Boy began with that working title and I never lost sight of it, nor did I even consider casting about for alternatives. Fortunately, Oolichan Books never questioned it either, nor did they question the title of A Crack in the Wall, or Delivery.

Delivery ran through a number of working titles; one of the worst, or so proclaimed my thesis advisor, Catherine Bush, whose wince when I suggested it said all, was “Alone With a Baby.” Well, yes. It did have different connotations as the story progressed, but even while I was considering,  I knew it had a pathetic ring that I did not want to prevail. Credit for the title, Delivery, goes to Catherine. Without her wise advice, I shudder to think of the yoke I might have lain on the shoulders of Lynn and BeeGee, the baby who is the heart of this story.

I had no intention of letting these thoughts on naming lead to the promotion of Delivery but because it is the only one of my books that has not been unabashedly dragged out of those doldrums where the sails of a boat droop after the first season, why not?

Delivery, like other of my stories comes from my earlier life as a social worker, and in particular the involvement I’ve had in adoptions. In this story, though, I chose a perspective other than that of the social worker. Several years ago, when I was working for a private adoption agency, my colleague was interviewing a young woman who was considering an adoption plan. The young woman’s mother who was waiting outside that closed door looked as though she was trying desperately hard to hold back tears. I sat down beside her and after a bit of casual chatting, asked her what support she would have should her daughter make the decision to place the baby with an adoptive family. She looked at me as though I was daft. “There isn’t anyone who can support me enough to make me believe this is the right choice.” Then she turned in her chair and stared straight into my eyes and said, “What would you do if your daughter decided to give away your grandchild?” I didn’t dare to say the words, but I nodded and nodded, and I think she knew that I would grab the baby and run.

That, in essence, is what happens in Delivery. This is the story of a grandmother who, on the morning of the day her daughter will “deliver” a beautiful baby girl to a family who are, despite a few visits, strangers, packs the baby in a laundry basket, straps her into the back of her car, and heads for the hills. In this case, those hills are mountains and Lynn’s destination is a small island on the west coast.

Comment from one of the jurors for the Alberta Book Awards George Bugnet prize for fiction in which Delivery was a finalist: “Domestic dysfunction never had it so good. This novel lactates with life.”

As an aside to this quote, I had the pleasure of visiting a book club comprised of the staff at a Starbucks where the average age of the readers was probably about 23. A young man, who said he was surprised by how much he liked the book and surprised too because he’d “never read anything where there was so much breast and breast milk in …” Here he seemed stumped, so I offered, “In a non-sexual context.” “Exactly!”

Why you should read this book?  Because it lactates with life!

http://www.oolichan.com/hegerat-delivery

 

 

 

 

Carpe Diem

I haven’t written anything with publication in mind for almost three years, but I have done a lot of writing, just because it remains one of the best ways for me to muddle through life. Every now and again, I discover, in the writing, something I want to share because it isn’t just about me, but about Life. How pretentious is that! But surely all writers plunge headlong into ostentatious territory with fewer inhibitions than those who are lucky enough to have escaped the need to chronicle their lives.

I’ve had two years of struggling with mood disorder – chemical imbalance, brain gone fritzy, medication a reliable crutch, and an understanding family propping me up. Then, a year ago, July 22, 2013, my only sister, my best friend, died. I won’t dwell on grief. Each of us deals with it in our own way. Life is ultimately about endings and loss – this, I learned and thought I was prepared to accept years ago. But that doesn’t lessen the pain and the great hole in the hearts and lives of the people who grieve. The human condition. And would we want to be without these feelings, carry on as though the candy bowl was still full?

On July 22, I visited the peaceful memorial gardens for the first time since my sister’s ashes were placed in a burial vault there. I’d attempted two previous visits, but backed away when I realized I was doing this because I felt I “should” rather than because I wanted to acknowledge the day. The inscription my brother-in-law chose for the plaque on that small vault was enough to make me glad I was there: “Lent by God to be Loved by Us.” Whether one believes in one God or another, in a Creator, in the the Universe, or whatever your belief in how it all began, we all arrive on the planet with a return ticket. In this difficult “first year”, I’ve tried to ride out waves of anger and deep sadness, with gratitude for having my sister in my life for all these sixty-six years. Not there yet, but faith keeps me moving in that direction.

Yesterday we had what has become an annual birthday celebration for my son, my nephew, and his daughter, who have birthdays within two days of each other early in July. This year we included Margaux, Stefan’s girlfriend of so many years that she’s part of the family, and her parents as well because Margaux’s birthday is also in July. Another difficult “first” but as I watched Sharon’s grandchildren flit about, and considered the love and the strength of the family, I was reminded yet again, that these are the times that matter. Time spent with the people we love, in the time we are given. Carpe diem. I’m determined to start each day with these enduring words from Horace’s Odes. And I gently offer them to you on this day.

Short Fiction: Be Still and Listen to the Heart Beat

Two quotes from Alice Munro in Robert Thacker’s book, Alice Munro Writing Her Lives have lodged in my mind during the time I’ve been reading this wonderful book:
“There is always a starting point in reality.”
“How can you get your finger on it, feel your life beating.”

Oh, to feel the heartbeat in a short story  when it insists on being written.

This seems like the right time for some promo for A Crack in the Wall (Oolichan Books 2008), my first and only book of short fiction. In spite of having ventured into the territory of the novelist with Running Toward Home and Delivery, in spite of having trod new ground with a braid of non-fiction/investigative journalism, fiction and memoir in The Boy, the short story still feels like homeland. Perhaps because so many of my stories began with a memory, with nostalgia, with moments in my life that have taken on a new slant now that I’ve traveled a considerable distance.

A Crack in the Wall has a special place in my heart, because it is a compilation of short stories written over a period of fifteen years, some of them published in literary magazines, two of them broadcast on CBC’s Alberta Anthology, which was such a wonderful opportunity for Alberta writers to hear their stories in another “voice.” I will never forget the thrill of hearing “Pins and Needles” read by the inimitable Stephen Hair (Theatre Calgary’s own “Scrooge”). The collection claims my affection as well, because it is rife with the voices of my family and stolen moments from our lives. My eldest son, each time I had a story published, would ask, “Are we in it?” And my reply, so often, “Of course you are, because there are children and mothers and all that I know about being a mother I learned from you.”

So why should you seek out this “old” book? http://www.oolichan.com/hegerat-a-crack-in-the-wall

1. Because it’s published by one of our fine Canadian small presses, Oolichan Books, who have been so good to this author through the publication of three books, each one beautifully produced and designed.

2. Because short fiction has reclaimed its place as a gem in the crown of fiction.

3. Because you can finish a story in the time it takes to commute to your work, or to feel blissfully ready for sleep, or to simply escape life within the circle of a story.

4. Because these stories are dear to me, and whether you know me or not, you will know me better having read about the cracks in my own walls.

5. Because if you do know me well, you may find yourself between the pages. But if you ask, I will smile and remind you that I write “fiction.”

6. Because A Crack in the Wall is dedicated to “the memories of my mom and dad, Martha and Morris Harke, who taught me to be still and listen.” A lesson I’ve cherished, and I hope you will too.

7. And finally, if reviews matter to you:

“…a gifted and compelling storyteller, she deals in ordinary people who lead ordinary lives, but by some unobtrusive narrative magic, her people become extraordinary.”
—David Carpenter, author of Banjo Lessons, Writing Home, Courting Saskatchewan and so many more.

“Refreshingly unpretentious, A Crack in the Wall draws out detail with an easy momentum that avoids the excesses of myopic realism. Humour, as in the collection’s opening sentence (“The old cat hunkers on the counter next to the aquarium, more interested in the bloated goldfish now than when it was alive”) produces gentle laughs. Simple and precise, Hegerat’s style elegantly explores the inner lives of characters struggling against expectation and inevitability —themes that are at once maddeningly complex and mundane.”
— Jeff Kubik in “Alberta Views”

Hanging out in an anthology with some of Canada’s finest authors of books for young people

Dark Times, edited by Ann Walsh

The anthology Dark Times was published in 2005 by Ronsdale Press: http://ronsdalepress.com/books/dark-times/

I was working on Running Toward Home, and struggling mightily with sustaining the perspective of a teenaged boy throughout a book length story. When I saw the call for submissions for an anthology for young people dealing with loss and grief, one of my children had recently dealt with a dark and difficult experience. The writing of “Kick”, my contribution to Dark Times, was in part a way of trying to make sense of that experience, and an exercise in getting inside the skin of a fourteen-year-old boy.

Why should you read this book, and then pass it along to young people in your life?

1. We assume, I think, that books for pre-teens and teenagers need action, adventure, fantasy, to hold their attention. I know from reading to my children from the time they were old enough old to sit still for the four minutes required to read a story book, that books about real life had their own special magic. So many contemporary YA books I could name that deal with difficult subjects. Dark Times, in the words of Norma Charles, author of All the Way to Mexico, is: “A fine collection of gritty and compelling stories for young people about loss and grief that will rivet the reader, and in the end, inspire hope because of the indomitable spirit of youth.”

2. This collection was edited by the inspiring, award-winning children’s author, Ann Walsh. If you don’t know Ann’s work, you should, and when you’ve finished reading Dark Times with your child, move on Ann’s long list of books, many of them set in the north: http://annwalsh.ca/

3. The other contributors to this anthology include authors who left me feeling humble and honoured to be in their company: Ann Walsh, Sarah Ellis, Lee Maracle, Alison Lohans, Diana Aspin, Carolyn Pogue, Carrie Mac, Donna Gamache, Gina Rozon, Libby Kennedy, Patricia McCowan , Jessie May Keller. The chorus of voices, the range of subject, and the eloquence of the writing – do I need to offer more encouragement?

4. Because this book is an excellent one, parents for discussion with your own children; teachers, for discussion with your classes; youth leaders, for discussion with the young people whose company you enjoy.

5. And finally, because I’m not holding back at all in these posts on self-promotion, in a review of Dark Times, Richard van Camp, internationally renowned storyteller and author of a long list of books including The Lesser Blessed as well as several stunningly beautiful books for very young children says :“Kick” by Betty Jane Hegerat is probably one of my favourite in the collection because the story is about how a victim of bullying copes with the confusion after the school bully, Will, dies suddenly in a vehicle accident with his family. I like this story because the author nails the confusion that comes with grief and mourning so perfectly at the end.”
Who can resist tooting her horn over such an endorsement?