NDJ:8 Billie Ann Pivnick

THE PILE-UP

I was woken by sobbing coming from the next room. From my bed, I could see my clock radio hands pointing to the one and the six. Did that mean it was time to get up for school? No, too black; it must be one-thirty a.m., not six. Who, now shrieking and swearing, could be in my walk-in closet at this hour? Whoever it was had to have come in through my door without my hearing. Could I really be so unprotected? Focus, wake up! That’s my name being called. I bounded out of bed and opened the closet door.

In the glare of overhead lights, my mother stood in a pile of hangers, blaring orders at me. How many times have I told you that these hangers have to be exactly an inch apart? Can’t you see what a mess you’ve made? Take these clothes out right now and re-hang them! I buy you girls such beautiful outfits, but you ruin them. This is not the way you keep clothing nice. If things are not hung up properly, they wrinkle!

I understood the irrationality of her concerns and her demands. My mother was driven to create order because her epilepsy left her feeling so disordered. She scoured the stainless steel kitchen sink with Ajax about 60 times a day — until her hands dried, cracked, and oozed — and cried if even water spilled on the marble kitchen floor. She kept towels around all the sinks to be sure puddles didn’t get on the counters and expected me to squeegee the glass door after every shower so the water droplets didn’t leave trails. Afraid of upsetting her, I complied. With this scene repeating on many nights of my sixteenth year, it was I who finally got hung up!

I haven’t just one writer’s block: mine pile up. Imagine instead of long rows of hangers on a clothes rack — words that need to be hanged and re-hanged, and spaces that need to be filled and emptied, repeatedly. Trains, too, come to mind, especially the pile-up of cars as they whistle by.

Because I grew up in the Midwest, where freight moved in the night, my father’s black Buick frequently got hung up at train crossings. Though I loved rooting for him to drive us fast enough to outpace the moon, or holding my breath longer than my little sister while passing long expanses of cemetery plots, I found these interruptions exciting. The bells clamored, the booms lowered, and the train rhythmically rumbled past us. Springing up fast enough from the back seat to count the cars as they hurtled by was a challenge, but that was what had to be done: I took pride in being able to count the highest. When the train length surpassed 106 cars, though, I knew I was in for a very long wait because that meant there would be so…very….many…..more. I was happy when I could read the names on the cars instead — Southern Pacific, Erie Lackawanna, Union Pacific, Illinois Central, Georgia Pacific, Grand Trunk Western — like the wheels, these, too, had a meter.

Sometimes I tried to discern patterns in the intermittencies of freight car forms or colors. Blocked by tracks, I had time to think.

In my twenties, I couldn’t write because I had to keep moving. In my thirties, I couldn’t write because I couldn’t get moving. In my forties, I sobbed amid piles of imperfectly strung sentences. In my fifties, I heard my words as music, their beat driving my engine. Now I’ve a pile of lessons to share and the momentum to get my readers to care. Here’s how they stack up:

When I reach my 106th draft of something, it’s going to be a very…long….time…..before I complete it. Though I hate to admit it, worrying about how many words I’ve written and whether I’ve left enough space on the page does smooth out the wrinkles in my prose. Scouring my writing for innocuous inaccuracies will leave me dried, cracked, and oozing, so I let the words flow before I squeegee stray ones away. I listen to the rhythm of my thoughts; I let my phrases roll. Finally, when I’m writing to outrun the moon, I now barrel through those pile-ups at the crossings. I am the train, after all, not the cars waiting for me to pass.