On May 26, 2013 I finished the first draft of More More Time, my fifth novel. It has taken me nearly two years to complete this story. I am very excited about it. Here is a synopsis:
In this novel of love and loss, of hope and the constraints of time, we are introduced to Maxwell Ruth, a sixty-two year old history teacher who is obsessed with Abraham Lincoln, disappointed in his chosen career, frustrated with a life less great than he had hoped, and desperate for a relationship with a woman. After a fall down his basement stairs, Max starts hearing a simple, yet puzzling message: endingtimeendingtimeendingtime. Little does he know that these words will have meaning for the other key people in his life, as well. Hargrove Stinson, Max’s best friend and fellow history teacher, becomes involved with Max’s neighbor, Beth, a massage therapist; Beth’s husband, Bob, becomes the unwitting inspiration for Gwen Stinson to confront the inadequacies of her marriage to Hargrove and to embrace the possibility of change for the first time. And then there is Constance Young, a secretary in Max’s doctor’s office, vivacious, sensuous, who will give Max the one thing he has never had---love. Under the surface of these lives are loss, abuse, infidelity and a search for something different. Each could use More More Time, but the clock is always ticking and time is always short.
Maxwell Ruth, thoroughly steeped in the legacy of the 1960s has grown cynical over the years. He loathes the apathy of his students and yet seems unable to change the course of his life. Both of his parents were killed in separate though equally freakish accidents. He has never been in love and he feels time is running out. Constance Young will prove to be the love of his life. He will die with Constance at his side, while giving his annual recitation of the Gettysburg Address.
Constance Young, in her mid-fifties, is the secretary at Max’s doctor’s office. She is a widow with a story to tell. She takes a liking to the owlish Max that surprises her coworkers. They begin a relationship that ends in love.
Hargrove and Gwen Stinson married when Gwen became pregnant. Hargrove “did the right thing” by marrying her even though it was unclear whether he loved her. When Gwen had their daughter, Sally, Hargrove’s love for her kept the marriage alive. After Sally committed suicide in college, though, Hargrove and Gwen’s relationship began a slow, nearly invisible downward spiral from which neither seemed able to escape. Gwen was frequently hospitalized and Hargrove found an accommodating massage therapist, Beth Hazelwood, that helped him escape from his woes.
Beth and Bob Hazelwood, both in their late thirties, are struggling in their marriage after Beth learns that Bob has been unfaithful. She is also frustrated that Bob seems to have no ambition. Beth’s early sexual abuse at the hands of her father form the background for many of her struggles. Bob, one of Max’s former student’s, doesn’t understand what to do with his life or his wife. A long forgotten gift from his former teacher will prove transformative. And a serendipitous encounter with Gwen Stinson, will transform her life.
Each of these characters is faced with the fickle nature of time, assuming there will always be More More Time, yet faced with the pressing reality of endingtime. This story is a humorous, tender, yet raw, look at how time shapes the lives of six people whether they recognize it or not.
Of course there is still much work to do. I am letting the book simmer for a while before I start editing, shaping, buffing and polishing the text. I will likely enlist a freelance editor, as well, before sending it to my publisher. I hope this work is completed by fall 2013.
Below is the first chapter of More More Time. I hope you like it.
Maxwell Ruth lay sprawled on the basement floor studying the rafters above him where a maze of spider webs formed a canopy world usually outside of his awareness. He wondered if its eight-legged residents watched him with puzzled curiosity as, from time to time, he invaded their space returning tools to the nails he had long ago pounded into the plaster walls, or, as he was today, bringing laundry to be washed. Did they wonder at him as he now wondered at them? Did they know that with a single sweep of his broom, he could destroy them all? Of course they didn’t, thought Maxwell. They were protected from such thoughts; they just lived, not having to wash clothes and prepare lesson plans and cook dinner and drive to work and stand in front of a classroom of apathetic students each day; they spun at their leisure, not governed by the bell at the end of period, not knowing one minute from another, not knowing time at all, its heavy feet marching, step by step, step by step. They lived, unaware. Who was better for their circumstance? Maxwell wondered.
He breathed deep the musty, cool air and stretched his arms out on the cement floor, appreciating the chill. He felt the sweat on his arms trickling through graying hair and puddling where his skin met the floor. His head pressed tight against the basement wall, his neck aching; his legs lay limp on the last two steps of the staircase he had climbed ten thousand times or more. It was several minutes before it struck him odd that he was in such a position. It was several minutes more before he noticed the blood flowing like a lava river across his forehead into his right ear and on to the floor. He tried to move and then thought better of it when his body, still assessing the damage, made a convincing argument to stay put.
Maxwell reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a handkerchief which he used to mop his bleeding brow. He folded it over time and again, trying to absorb as much blood as possible. He noted a gash over his right eye, but the pain did not register. Upon him lay underwear, T-shirts, knee-high black socks, white dress shirts and grey trousers, evidence of his last week’s activities. And beside him lay Our Nation’s Heritage, the history text he had planned on reading while waiting for his laundry to run its many cycles. The wicker clothes basket stood beside him, right side up, waiting to be filled again. He dropped his handkerchief to the floor and lay back, trying to get his bearings.
Soon Maxwell’s head began to throb. The blood was clotting now, forming a Gorbachev-like paste across his forehead and temple. He drew his legs to one side and wriggled his body around so that his head was no longer wedged against the wall. He stretched out flat as he could and mentally checked his legs and arms and hips and chest and abdomen and neck and finally his head, which was where the trouble seemed to lie.
He looked back up the stairs to the open kitchen door where the sun was shining. Only then did he start piecing together what had happened. He had eaten his breakfast, an English muffin with orange marmalade and a cup of tea with half-and-half and sugar, while perusing the morning newspaper. He was reading a story about a young man who for the third time in as many weeks had opened the hood of his car only to find a copperhead snake curled on top of the radiator. What in the heck? thought Maxwell as he pushed his chair from the table, stood, took a final sip of his tea, and then picked up the clothes basket that was waiting by the basement door. So began his Saturday ritual. He always washed his shirts first so that they could hang dry before ironing them on Sunday morning. If he put them in the dryer they might shrink, something that Maxwell’s persistently expanding girth could not withstand. Then all his underwear and et ceteras and, finally, bath towels, wash clothes, hand towels and dish towels. Three loads usually did it.
He always stayed in the basement while the first load was in the wash so he could quickly transfer it to the dryer and then put in the second load. The dryer took a long while, giving him time to attend to other things. Sometimes he dusted and swept the living room and his bedroom. Other times he mopped the kitchen floor and cleaned the toilet. Occasionally he sat on his front porch and did absolutely nothing at all.
More often than not, while he waited for the first load of wash to finish, he pulled out the teacher’s edition of Our Nation’s Heritage so that he could review the chapters to be covered in the following week. He would make changes in the lesson plans if necessary, although, truth be told, he hadn’t changed them in years. “You can’t just lecture at them all day,” said his department chair, Timothy Blackwell, almost fifteen years his junior. “Kids don’t learn that way anymore. You need to make your lessons more interactive; use some of the technology in your room, like that smart board of yours. It does amazing things.” Maxwell would listen intently, shaking his head in agreement; he would thank Timothy, or Timmy, as he thought of him, and promise to give it a try, though his fingers were always crossed.
The problem with students today was that they were so spoiled by Sesame St. and MTV and videogames and You Tube and Twitter, whatever that was, that all they cared about was their iPods and cell phones and texting and where they were going to get their next joint; they had no respect for their elders and they didn’t care about learning. Their parents were afraid of them and wanted schools do things that would never have been expected when Maxwell entered the profession some forty years ago, like teaching them self-esteem, and personal values, and sex, for God’s sake, and basically raising them while their parents were either off to Yoga classes or sitting around somewhere drinking frappachinos or meeting with their divorce lawyers. He’d be damned if he was going to cave into a simpering bunch of crybabies. He wasn’t there to baby-sit or entertain; he was there to teach. American history was American history. You didn’t need to dress it up to make it exciting. It came with its own excitement if you had enough self-discipline to listen and learn. How hard is that? But no. Instead they sat with blank stares on their faces, texting each other shamelessly throughout his class, several with their heads on their desks sleeping, the girls with their breasts falling out of their tops, and the boys with their pants falling off their rear-ends.
Standing in front of them, Maxwell often imagined his beloved Abraham Lincoln, or as he preferred to call him, The Great Man, at his side, his long awkward arms stretching far beyond his shirt cuffs, his homely, textured face and somber eyes. What would The Great Man think of these young Americans? Would he wonder why he had worked so hard to save the Union, only to have it taken for granted by a bunch of pimple-faced teenagers, some of whom didn’t even know who The Great Man was. “First president, right, Mr. Ruth?”
Maxwell tried to make peace with the new generation and tried to ignore the silliness of new educators. He believed his job was to tell the American story as best he could. The ears that were open would learn. He didn’t care about the rest.
Maxwell had dropped the history textbook into the clothes basket and headed for the basement steps. He didn’t remember much of what had happened after that. All he knew for certain was that he had ended up at the bottom of the stairs with a gash in his head and a body full of aches and pains.
He sat up and stretched his neck slowly from side to side. He rubbed both of his legs and moved his ankles in circles. He took a deep breath and looked up the stairs again. He wasn’t sure he was ready to stand, so he lay back on the floor.
Through the quiet of the basement came that old familiar ringing in his ears. It had been ten years since that Friday morning when he had awakened to a sound that he was convinced was coming from his fire alarm, or maybe his stove, or maybe a radiator. He looked everywhere until it donned on him that it came from nowhere; nowhere, that is, in his house. It came instead from his own ears. He shook his head and tried to clean out his ears, assuming there was water trapped from the shower he had taken the night before. He tried to ignore it during breakfast and on his drive to work, waiting patiently for a warm drop of water to make its way down the ear canal. But by lunch, he was exasperated that nothing could silence the noise. He called the doctor’s at the end of the day but they didn’t have any appointments. He would have to wait until Monday. At the time he thought Monday might just as well have been the middle of next year. How was he going to make it? But he left the water in his bathroom sink trickle onto some aluminum foil at night, making enough distracting noise that he could sleep, and during the day, he vacated the house, stayed busy and surrounded himself with traffic, grocery shopping and the mind-numbing noise of the local mall. By Sunday night, he went to bed feeling triumphant. He had made it. Come the morning he would see the doctor and in no time this problem would be behind him. When he crawled into his car the next day, he admitted that if he had to endure this whining, whirring ring tone another day, he might lose his mind.
The doctor listened to Maxwell’s description and shook his head in sympathetic recognition. He examined Maxwell and found no abnormalities. “You’ve got a classic case of tinnitus,” he said with self-satisfaction. “It’s not uncommon among people your age.” Maxwell mistakenly thought that if his doctor could name it, he could make it go away. “Not really.” He explained that it could be caused by any number of things, including the normal hearing loss that occurs as one gets older. When Maxwell said he hadn’t lost any of his hearing, the doctor just shook his head. “Anyway, there isn’t really any treatment. It could go away on its own, but that’s unlikely.” When Maxwell asked what he should do, the doctor shrugged and said, “Learn to live with it.” When he had entered the doctor’s office, he thought he was at the end of his rope. When he left the doctor’s office, he understood that his rope would have to reach until forever.
It helped to think of The Great Man’s suffering, even at an early age; the loss of his beloved mother and sister, his poverty, a distant and uncaring father; the death of his one true love; his marriage to a woman who was insane, the loss of children. He thought of The Great Man and how he had overcome it all; how he had sacrificed his very life to save a nation. How could Maxwell complain about something as inconsequential as ringing in his ear? And so he didn’t complain; he didn’t tell anyone; he just kept going; and in time, and with the help of a white noise machine for sleep and plain old determination, he overcame the annoyance.
Maxwell sat up. He leaned over on his knees and then stood, his body wavering slightly, his head light for a moment. He held onto the railing and closed his eyes while the dizziness passed. He took one step and then another, making his way slowly up the rickety old stairs. His head was thumping and the bleeding had started again, despite wrapping the wound in a dish towel he had pulled from the drawer beside the sink.
He hated the idea of calling someone for help. He should be able to handle this on his own. But when the bleeding didn’t subside and his aching head felt like it might burst, he reluctantly called 911.
“Hello,” he said and then cleared his throat.
“Hello,” said the dispatcher. “Is this an emergency?”
Her question stumped him. “I don’t know if you would call this an emergency.”
“Can you tell me what happened, sir?”
“Well, that’s why I called.”
“And, so what happened?
“I’m trying to get to that, if you’d give me a chance.”
“I think I fell.”
“You think you fell, sir?”
“Yes. Down my cellar stairs like some damn fool that can’t even---”
“Have you broken anything, sir?”
“I don’t think so. I just came back up the steps, and---”
“Are you injured, sir?”
“Well, yes, my head, it’s bleeding some.”
“Anything else, sir?”
“I don’t really know. I---”
“Is anyone with you that I could speak to?”
“No, there’s no one else here. I live a---”
“What is your address, sir?”
Maxwell didn’t like this game of twenty questions, no matter how necessary. It reminded him of his mother after his father got killed; her endless questioning about every aspect of Maxwell’s life, as if minutiae of information about every second, every minute, every hour of his day might help her conspire against the future and all its uncertainty.
When the ambulance arrived, several neighbors came out to see what was going on. He waved at them as if to say, “Move along; show’s over; nothing to see here.” Bleeding put Maxwell at the top of the list when he reached the emergency room. They quickly rolled his gurney into the room and pulled the curtain for privacy. Then he waited and waited some more. A nurse came in every few minutes to check on him, to clean his wound and to encourage him not to fall asleep. A jovial young doctor finally appeared. Fifteen stitches later he was done. The doctor recommended that Maxwell see his family physician if headaches or neck pain persisted. He told Maxwell that he was a lucky man; he could have killed himself.
Upon returning home, Maxwell sat at his kitchen table trying to get his bearings. He didn’t feel nearly as lucky as the doctor had suggested. Instead he felt like he had lost half his weekend and would have to hurry to get everything done before Monday morning took him in its clutches. Despite the doctor’s recommendation that he not climb stairs, Maxwell made his way back down the basement steps, gathered up the clothes and put the first load in the washer. He picked up Our Nation’s Heritage and started to read, but his head throbbed and his eyes wouldn’t focus so he closed the book and leaned back in his chair.
That’s when he first heard it. Not the usual ringing; something different, something that he couldn’t quite make out. He closed his eyes and bowed his head in concentration, but the phone rang in the kitchen, distracting him. When it finally stopped, the new sound had stopped as well. He shrugged his shoulders, assuming it was nothing, or that it was his tinnitus playing tricks on him. He leaned forward in his chair about to get up, when he heard it again, far away, dreamlike, almost pleasant. He couldn’t quite get a fix on it. It was a sound unlike the nails-on-a-chalk-board whining in his ears that he was used to. He listened. A violin. That’s what it was. A single, effortless chord, and then it was gone.
Maxwell returned to the basement. The first load of wash was done. It was quiet again. He listened. Nothing. He put the wet clothes in the dryer and put another load in the washer. He picked up his book and started back up the stairs. He closed the basement door and stood in the kitchen listening, but all he could hear was the old ringing.
As the afternoon wore on, everything Maxwell did, every step, every chore took twice as long. His aching body had gone on strike, it seemed, picketing his every move. By dinner time his headache had lessoned considerably, though. He ran his fingers across the stitches that lined his forehead and temple. What would his students say about this? Sometimes boys called out his name in low guttural tones like they were belching---“Ruuuuuuuth!”---when he walked down the hall.
Maxwell made a grilled cheese sandwich, tossed salad and iced tea for dinner. He nearly fell asleep at the kitchen table, but someone knocking at the front door startled him awake. He couldn’t imagine who it might be. Another knock, and then another. Maxwell waited and whoever it was went away. By then, Maxwell was so tired that he went to bed, not even changing into his pajamas.
At 3 a.m. he awoke and went to the bathroom. As he stood over the toilet, the violin returned, but this time there was something different. There was a rhythm to the music that sounded almost like words being spoken through the strings. He went back to bed and lay staring at the ceiling. He closed his eyes and concentrated, the tone deepening, sounding more like a cello, the rhythmic pattern becoming more distinct, more defined, like someone mumbling slowly and without interruption. He put his hands over his ears to block out the noise of his alarm clock ticking. He thought he could make out words, but then they slipped away. He tried again and this time he heard them, gentle, lilting vowels and consonants and syllables that babbled effortlessly along like a shallow creek streaming across smooth stones in the dead of night. He almost smiled. But then the sounds collected into words. He tried to make them out, but they eluded him. “Dammit,” he said, leaning on one elbow, closing his eyes for concentration sake. Slowly the words came clear and when they did, Mr. Ruth was so startled that he sat bolt upright and reached for the lamp on the table beside his bed, knocking the latest Lincoln biography onto the floor.