This is what Chris Baty, founder of National Novel Writing Month, says about Week Three:
“If you are feeling stymied in Week Three, you were probably cursed with a more dictatorial Inner Editor than most.”
Yeah, that’s me.
Week Three is supposed to be about new highs, sudden synergies, a light at the end of the tunnel.
Mrs. Tennant knocked and then cautiously peeked around the door. “Malcolm, honey? Can I come in?”
He nodded, propped drearily on his pillows, and in she came, in what looked like a new outfit, carrying a pizza box. It was so like her to want to impress the doctors and patients with how fashionable she was, to think that a visit to psychiatric lock-up was a dress-up occasion.
She held the box out toward him. “Happy Birthday!”
He wasn’t in a very good mood, but he still noticed that it wasn’t a pizza box after all; it was a gigantic Smiley face cookie from Eat’n’Park. He took the box from her hands and smiled sadly.
“Do you remember?” she asked quietly, timidly sitting in a bedside chair, no doubt anxious that he’d get violent again.
He did remember. He was fifteen, working as a busboy at Eat’n’Park in the evenings after school; his Mom worked across the street as a cashier at the Giant Eagle. They used to walk home together, about the only time they ever saw each other. They took turns bringing food from work for late night walking dinners, and one May, for her birthday, he bought a cookie just like this for her present. They broke off bits to nibble all the way home. It was one of the best times they ever had.
Now it looked like it was his turn. “Thanks, Mom,” he said, as he lifted the lid and broke off a bit. He was tearful, again, and didn’t bother to hide it as he passed the box to share with her.
“It’s not a birthday without a little party,” she said and brought out a half gallon of milk from her tote bag.
Now he laughed. “Is that thing bottomless or what? What else do you have in there, a hot air balloon?”
“I got us scratch-off tickets, ” she said, passing one to Malcolm. Cramming more cookie into his mouth, he began the guesswork of scratching the little ticket, using his thumbnail, but it was a game his Mom liked, so he played. He didn’t win anything, but she won $20 dollars, which she would use for more tickets. Of course.
“I’m lucky because it’s your birthday,” she said, with that bouncy tone she had when she was having one of her optimistic moments. He didn’t begrudge her—her life had to be a disappointment. Youth, love, dreams of comfort and fun all had faded faster than they should have, and as messed up as he’d always been, he knew his presence in her life was no compensation. Rather the opposite. Even now, she was the one shouldering the expense of this latest meltdown. He’d pay her back if he could, but he couldn’t.
Once she had won $250 on one of these tickets. He was about nine. She took them to Walmart where she bought him brand-new sneakers, a bright blue T-shirt and jeans, and she got herself a new outfit, too, that she tried on and came out to show him, a matching full skirt and top, and even now he could see how she had twirled in it. How come you’re old, Mom? he thought as he watched her marvel at her new, lucky ticket, held at arm’s length. The rest of the big winnings went to their first and only vacation: a rented cabin at Moraine State Park, a rented car, full of gear, but all they did was lay about and read books and swim and walk in the woods and eat when they were incredibly hungry as the light finally faded from the summer days. When he lost interest in the book he brought, Malcolm drew people sleeping in the sun or playing in the water. Crude, out-of-shape things compared to what he could do now. Watching him, his Mom asked him to draw the trees so she’d always remember; she was angry with him when he didn’t. Stubborn, always contrary. But that Christmas, her gift from him was trees and stars—crayon trees with hundreds of tiny leaves in green, yellow and blue and above them, stars of white, orange and red, all washed by black and purple paint and glitter sprinkles. That hug he’d remember all his life. His Mom bought a plastic frame that looked like carved wood and hung it on the kitchen wall of their crappy apartment. “My magic place,” she used to say.
“Why are you crying, Mal? I won!” she said when she turned to share her pleasure.
He shrugged, trying for an apologetic smile. Maybe one of her next tickets would be the Big One. It wasn’t going to be him; that much was for damn sure.