Week Nine

I’ve been chronicling my project with my wife on this blog. I’m going to write a sonnet series about the creation of California. I’m using the dual stories of William Mulholland and John Muir to tell the story of water in California, what really made it what it is. Ann’s a visual artist, so she’s going to do the graphic art work for it.

For me the first draft of the first chapter of anything is a throw away. It helps me to get into the novel or the epic or whatever, but by the time I’m about halfway through the work, I realize that I need to change it. Still, I put as much effort into it as I can. Even though I’m going to throw it away later, it has a use.

Mostly, it tells me how I am going to start my project. It gives me a foothold on what I am doing and it helps me to move forward. It sets a possible tone from which my entire piece will evolve. So this week, I finally decided to work on the epic.

I wanted a modern connection to help get us through the entire work, so I’ve gone with my old character Harrison, from my short story collection, Let Us All Pray Now to Our Own Strange Gods. Harrison works for the forestry service and has a son going through emotional problems. His son has these kind of pseudo-religious delusions of grandeur. Harrison’s mission is going to be to bring his son up to the mountains to find peace there. It will be a failure of sorts, but his son will be moved by the experience.

Anyway, I’m not ready to work on Muir and Mulholland yet. They need more research. I need to clarify who they are in terms of story, and of course, I need to know what they did in precise detail, so I started with a couple of quick sonnets about Harrison to start off the story in the first person. Here they are:

The ex calls when I’m sitting in traffic,
of course, air conditioning out, hottest
day of the year. I figure this is a test,
that she wants to know if I’ll always pick
up the phone even when I’m on the road.
I will. I do. Every call might be about
Stanley. This one is. She tells me that
he’s been suspended again, and she knows
I’m busy, but she is too. Could I just
take him? On the back wheel well, my bottle
of water is rolling back and forth. Finger
tips brush it, but it’s gone. “Harrison, you must
know what I’m going through. I want to throttle
him. Every day I push down the anger,

so he can’t see it, but it’s just getting
too hard. He’s your son too.” He is, and she’s
right, but all I can think about is the heat
and my sweat and the bottle that’s sitting
just out of my reach. I jerk the truck right
and the water rolls my way, and I grab
for it but I’m distracted, and I can’t nab
the damn thing, and besides, the brake lights
in front of me go on, and I nearly
crash into a Pinto. “Harrison? You’re
still listening to me?” I am. I am. We
both know I’m going to say yes, and she
knew it before she called. So I tell her
I’ll take the boy, and my chest feels heavy.

The story of California is the story of water just out of reach and human relationships not quite working, so I thought I’d start with those two themes on the first page.