You can know anything. It's all there. You just have to find it.

-Neil Gaiman


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Lake Woebegone - part deux

So shortly after my conference with Garrison Keillor we only had a few classes left. I revised my story. Revised it again. Thought about it. Then revised it one more time. Then I turned it in, feeling pretty good about what I wrote.

Near the end of the class, Mr. Keillor made an announcement. How would the class like him to compile some of the best essays and other assignments people have done into an anthology to be published? Would people be interested in that? Um....yeah, I think that most writing students would be more than a little pleased to be published in a book, edited and produced by you-know-who.

So, needless to say, everyone was very excited.

I remembering thinking, "I hope he picks my essay. Because it's good." This I know, just like you know when you do something and you just KNOW it's good. The only question is, "Is it good enough to make the final cut?"

Eventually the semester ended. I finished my degree in English. I also found out that spring that an independent publishing company is interested in publishing my picture book, Luella. This is in May of 2006.

In December 2006 I get an email from Prairie Home Productions, saying they have chosen twelve essays for the anthology and mine is one of them, and please contact this person who is a photographer and wants to take everyone's picture for the book.

I'm insanely happy. Happy that the story I worked so hard on will be published. Of course, I tell everyone....

In January 2007 I go to get my picture taken. I do not like any of them because for some reason the photographer insists on shooting from beneath me, making me look like I have a double chin, though I can't bring myself to say, "Um, this is not the most flattering angle to take a picture." I can't say this to someone who has a degree in photography and is supposed to be an expert on these things. I'm not a professional photographer but I do know that crouching in front of someone to get a picture of the inside of their nostrils will not get you a Pulitzer. I look over some of the photos that are emailed to me and try to vote for the least hideous one.

I spend the next 9 months working on drawings and the story to get it ready to be published.

My picture book, Luella, is published in late July 2007.

In September 2007, I have my book party at Common Good Books in Saint Paul, which is coincidentally owned by you-know-who. The party goes really well.

Fast forward through 2008. My mom keeps asking when the book is coming out. "I don't know," is all I can say.

Fast forward through 2009. Umm...still waiting.

I have decided that this book is probably not coming out. I understand these things happen. Plus, I have learned my lesson, which is: Don't ever say anything about anything until you know for sure. Knowing for sure in the book world is when the finished product is in your hot little hands. And the checks clear.

The only positive thing about this is that my awful author photo won't be published. But anyway, I thought the story was worth something, so I'll post it here.

(unfortunately not on the same level as the Graham Greene version

The Power and the Glory
By Melinda Braun

When I was eight years old I didn’t believe in God. I went to a Lutheran school and went to church every Sunday. I prayed before dinner, before bed, but when I started thinking about it, the stories I’d been told didn’t add up. Penguins lived in Antarctica but Noah was building his boat, cubit by cubit, out in the middle of the Holy Land. How did the penguins get on the boat? What about the polar bears in Canada? How did the lions not eat the Holsteins? No one seemed to know.

When my spiritual conversion finally came I was ready to see the truth. The believers liked to say the Lord worked in mysterious ways. In my case, it took one great-grandmother, three dogs, and the Girl Scouts of America.

As I rode along with my mother in our Pontiac station wagon one afternoon, I was informed that I would be busy every Tuesday after school. “Brownies,” my mother said. “You’ll like it.”

“Brownies?” I hadn’t been listening. My mother talked a lot, and after a while I only paid attention when the tone changed or she said my name, like calling a dog. There was a point in a conversation where I knew it was in my best interest to pay attention, but my mother’s voice hadn’t hit that octave yet. I think it was a C sharp. “Brownies to eat?”
“No, it’s a group,” she explained. “You’ll learn how to do all sorts of things. Cooking, sewing, arts and crafts. I did it when I was your age.”

She might’ve as well said I would be going to the dentist every Tuesday so I could practice getting my teeth pulled. No Novocain, to build character. I didn’t want to cook. I didn’t want to sew. I didn’t want to glue macaroni to construction paper. “I don’t want to be a Brownie.”
“You have to be a Brownie if you want to be a Girl Scout.”
“I don’t want to be a Girl Scout!” Cookies were the only good thing about the Girl Scouts, but I did like the uniforms. And the hats.
As usual, my mother knew my weakness. “You’ll get a special outfit with a sash for your badges.”
I leaned my head against the window. I was a sucker for fashion, especially anything I could decorate or embellish. A sash. A sash to cover with pins and badges. I would be somebody, and the sash would prove it. I had to have one, if only to wave in my brother’s face.

My uniform was not what I imagined. Brown polyester skirt. Plain white shirt. Brown wrinkled sash, naked of medals. No French beret. My brother smirked at me across the breakfast table. “You look like a dog turd.”
“I’m a Brownie!”
He swirled his spoon in his oatmeal. “Brownie turd, then.”

Tuesday after school Troop 918 met in our classroom. There were eleven girls, all classmates, and Mrs. Rouble was the troop leader. Mrs. Rouble was a large woman, with short paprika red curls around her face. She wore round tortoiseshell glasses that magnified her brown eyes so she resembled a gigantic screech owl, but an owl who wore shirts embroidered with kangaroos and koala bears. Apparently, Mrs. Rouble was a fan of marsupials.

That morning my mother gave me a quarter to bring to the meeting. “For dues,” she said. Dues, as it turned out, went into an empty Folgers coffee can to buy treats. Mrs. Rouble decided what the treats would be, and for our first meeting she brought powdered sugar donut holes. She passed them around the circle, admonishing us to “only take one” to make sure there would be enough. We then recited the Girl Scout pledge and sat around the large table stringing yarn around twigs. We were supposed to be making something called a dream catcher, to hang in our bedrooms, but when I got home I knew mine would be going in the garbage. I sat with my friend Jenny and watched Mrs. Rouble eat the five remaining donut holes when she thought no one was looking.
“God, she’s fat,” whispered Jenny.
“Because she eats all the treats.”

Next Tuesday I decided to keep my quarter. When we passed around the coffee can I threw in a rock instead, but Mrs. Rouble didn’t notice. She was too busy eating slices of cherry Kringle.

By the third meeting I discovered Troop 918’s mission. Selling cookies. For our troop to do anything other than make dream catchers or macramé pot holders we needed money. We had no special interest groups in Washington to lobby on our behalf, so it was left up to the entrepreneurial spirit of young girls. I felt sick. I hated talking to adults, strange adults were even worse, and the thought of going door to door to sell anything made me feel like the time I hid in the garage and ate an entire box of Dreamsicles by myself. My stomach turned over and sweat beads blossomed on my forehead.

I kept the cookie sheet buried at the bottom of my backpack for two weeks before my mother found it; I’d been planning to fill in a few names to make it look like I’d done something- John Smith, Jane Anderson, Seymour Butts. But too late it occurred to me that I should have burned it, destroyed all evidence, which was what any good scout would have done. I told her I forgot, but she knew I was lying.
“But I don’t want to sell cookies.”
“Too bad, everyone has to do it.”
“Not me.”
“Quit whining.”
I pleaded to my father. “Can’t you bring it to work with you? Just for a few days?”
My father believed in a strong work ethic and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. He believed that hard work was its own reward, that sloth was the worst of all mortal sins. “I’m not doing your work for you. You need to learn some responsibility.”

I was sent out the door and I wandered around our neighborhood for an hour, feeling sorry for myself. I sat on a snow bank and waited until my toes went numb, thinking up lies. “No one was home.” I told them. “They didn’t want any. They already bought all their cookies.”

In the end they bribed me with what I had wanted most. I had been begging for a dog. Every birthday. Every Christmas. I also begged for a horse, a spider monkey, and a baby tiger, but a dog was the most reasonable compromise. I was told I would have to sell twenty-five boxes of cookies.

I began knocking on doors, and if anyone answered I would shove the laminated sheet at them. “I’m selling Girl Scout cookies!” I screamed, bug-eyed and sweating. When I was nervous I tended to increase my pitch and volume, and most people took a step back and looked me over with concern. After an hour I had only sold three boxes, to an elderly lady who was senile and deaf. She thought I was delightful.

I dragged along all weekend, and by late Sunday afternoon I had sold nineteen boxes. I was running out of houses. Because I had waited so long most people had ordered their cookies from other girls. I knocked at a brick and stucco house at the end of the subdivision, and a short, bald man answered the door.
He stepped back, the whites of his eyes showed like a startled horse, and he made a strange sound in the back of his throat. “Ahh… um.” He coughed. “No thank you, young lady. I’m diabetic.”
A small Scottish terrier weaved around his shins, looking up at me with a happy, bearded grin. “Hi, doggie,” I said.
“His name is Angus.”
“My parents said they’d get me a dog if I sold twenty-five boxes of cookies.”
“That so?”
“Uh-huh, I’m up to nineteen.”
He took the sheet from my clenched fist. “I’ll take six.”

The next weekend I strolled down the cement aisles of the Racine Area Humane Society, and stopped in front of the kennel where a small blonde Cockapoo shivered in the corner. I named him Muffin.

Muffin lasted two weeks. No one could figure out how to housetrain him, and whenever we left to go somewhere my mother would shut him in the laundry room with his food and newspaper. Every time we came back we found the newspaper shredded and dog poop smeared everywhere, even on the ceiling. We couldn’t understand how such a small dog could defecate that much, or manage to get it on the ceiling, even if he was trying.
“Cockapoo?” said my father. “Cockashit!”

Small dogs seemed disastrous, so we exchanged Muffin for Nikki, who was the size of a small Shetland pony. The doggie card said she was an Irish wolfhound mix, and a perfect match for families. Loves kids, it said. We found out later that Nikki also loved chasing cars and chewing upholstery. When she ate the damask skirt off the living room sofa my mother screamed, but when Nikki destroyed the teddy bear my brother had owned since birth she cried. So did my brother. I sat in my room with Nikki because I knew she’d be gone tomorrow. I bawled, but she only wagged her tail, licked my face, and tried to chew off my ponytail.

On Sundays I sat silently in church, thinking hateful thoughts, while the pastor delivered his sermon, droning on in his monotonous voice. Ask and you will receive. Fat chance. When God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window. What a crock. I sat there on the hard wooden pew squinting at my hymnal with fury. I decided that God was for suckers and dummies, and that I would become a heathen. Heathens did what they wanted and never worried about it. They picked their noses in public, farted in crowded elevators, and belched without excusing themselves. Heathens ate cake and ice cream for breakfast, drank as much soda as they wanted, chewed with their mouths open, and watched dirty television shows. They never, ever went to church to be reminded how sinful and wicked they were because they knew it and didn’t even care.

I thought being a heathen would be fun, but it ended up being as much work as being good, and I also had a lot less free time because I was either sitting in a corner “thinking about what I’d done” or writing sentences like, I will not push my sister down the stairs in a laundry basket. My parents were sick of me, my brother and sister was sick of me, I was sick of me, and I think I was even starting to annoy Jesus. So much so that He decided to take a little time off from the world’s problems to teach me a lesson. If God could create the universe in only six days, He could certainly take the time to show one miserable brat the power and the glory of the Lord. So He did.

That Friday night I went to stay with my great-grandmother Luella, as most weekends my siblings and I spent with her in her little apartment. We loved going, and I think our parents loved us going even more. We got to stay up late, eat ice cream sundaes, drink coffee, and watch Johnny Carson. Grandma Lou thought all her grandchildren were complete and utter geniuses and didn’t hesitate to remind us on a weekly basis. She told us we could do or be anything we wanted and that nothing was impossible. Of course, we believed her.

I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want ice cream, or coffee, or Johnny Carson. I wanted to sit in my room and feel sorry for myself and have everyone else feel sorry for me, too. I wanted to be dead because I couldn’t think of anything more entertaining than sitting and imagining my funeral and how horrible everyone would feel that they hadn’t been nicer to me. I could picture the flowers and music and my beautiful coffin lowered into the ground while everyone I knew wailed and gnashed their teeth, overcome with guilt. It was wonderful.

I sat sulking on the sofa that night, refusing to laugh at Johnny’s jokes. When Grandma Lou asked what was wrong I told her. It came out in pathetic sobs and broken gasps, and when I finished crying she sat next to me, put her arm around my shoulders and squeezed me with sympathy. She was an old, thin woman who had had lost a sister during the Spanish influenza and buried two husbands, but she could still appreciate the heartbreak of one small girl.
“Now you listen to me, if that’s what you really want you will get it. You must believe in that. You must believe in God and yourself.”

That night we knelt down alongside the bed and recited the Lord’s Prayer in German. Vater unser im Himmel, Geheilgt werde dein Name… It was the first time I meant every word.

When my parents arrived Saturday morning they were pulled through the doorway by a skinny brown dog who strained towards me with unabashed excitement, her panting tongue unfurled from her mouth like a slimy pink streamer. I stepped back and sat down on the kitchen chair. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t cry. I just blinked with my mouth open; a paralyzed mute with an eye twitch.

Grandma Lou wasn’t surprised. She smiled and shrugged and started making coffee on the stove, and when she winked at me I realized she had probably witnessed a handful of miracles in her lifetime. Since this was my first she let me have my moment.

“Her name is Paws,” my mother told me. “We picked her up this morning from a man who got her during a special event called Pet Awareness Week. He asked us so many questions,” she said. “It was so strange, like an interview. He was very concerned that she was going to the right family. He said he didn’t want to give her up but he had too. He said she was a very special dog.”

I tried to speak but nothing would come out, only a gurgle. I petted Paws and she smiled at me, in the way that some dogs are able. Her eyes were the color of butterscotch candy, and I suddenly understood what true love felt like.

“Here are her toys, her brush. All her things.” My mother emptied a paper bag, and Paws picked up a tiny Cookie Monster doll and shoved it in my lap.

She stayed for thirteen years, until cancer took her. I was twenty-one when I got the call, late at night and alone in my college apartment in a city far away, the time it seems when such calls arrive. I thought I was an adult but I’d only begun to understand love. I still have the Cookie Monster, stashed in my closet and zip-locked for protection. Once in a while, when I go through my childhood things, my yearbooks and class pictures, the varsity letter jacket and trophies and ribbons, the things that remind me who I once was, I will take the time to unwrap my dearest memory. The scent of her breath, despite my best efforts, has long vanished, but I cradle it to my face anyway, close my eyes and breathe.

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