That Night

August 5, 2012

It was high summer, the early 1960s. The sky was a bright navy above the pitched roofs and the thick suburban trees. I hesitate to say that only Venus was bright, but there it was.
—from That Night
   Alice McDermott, b. 1953
   American fiction writer

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death, although that night that I am remembering is probably August 6, since her death was not discovered until early in the morning of the sixth and not reported nationally until that evening. I’ve written a short story that comes to a climax on that night. Its setting owes as much to Alice McDermott’s novel as it does to my own experience of being out on the porch among our neighbors that night.

I was 15 that night, and I lived on a city street shaded by large trees that would succumb in the ensuing years to Dutch elm disease. In the four semi-detached houses between 2214 and 2220 there lived four sets of parents, twenty children under 18, and two fairly mysterious naval officers who rented an attic room in the house next door to mine. Across the street was what we called the haunted house, not haunted really but merely a wooden single family structure in need of some paint where there had lived an old woman who didn’t mingle much and who had died some years earlier, leaving the house empty. Beside the haunted house was a row of six houses all connected. My best friend lived at the south end, beside a family that had caused a scene earlier that summer by forcing their 18-year-old daughter, struggling and screaming, into their car on a Wednesday night to take her to a mid-week church service. At the other end of the row, an unmarried man in his forties lived with his mother, although that summer his Swedish sister-in-law and her two daughters were in residence, so the girls could get to know their grandmother. It was that man, among our neighbors standing around on the sidewalk that night, who said of Marilyn Monroe, “She meant everything to me.” My sister, eleven years old then, remembers not knowing quite who it was they were talking about.

I am this night back from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, where I heard Alice McDermott read from a new novel. It was Stop #2 in my Waltzing Matilda summer. I’ve been to more than a dozen big writers’ conferences in the last dozen plus years. Some of the experiences I have described as really good and helpful (what one expects from such an event), one as depressing and demoralizing, and several as transcendent. The last ten days in Tennessee went beyond that, and this night I would say that they have been life-changing for me as a fiction writer. 

I have a week here to catch my breath before Stop #3, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont. In the days to come, and the days that follow Bread Loaf, I will likely post more tales from my travels: the Amish family I encountered at a rest stop on I-81 in Virginia, the North Carolina hotel room door that would not open from the inside, the Piggly Wiggly, the deer foraging in the cemetery across from my dorm room, the police action taking place at the hotel I was about to check into last night.

Waltz with me. Send me an email to join the notify list, add me to your RSS feeds, or just check back. Thank you for reading, so much, so often.


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