Caring for the Cookery

December 17, 2012

How Fiction Works book cover

I’ve been immersed in a little, red book for months. It’s called How Fiction Works by James Wood. It’s 248 pages of pure gold for novelists. Wood covers essential elements of fiction: narrating, detail, character, language and dialogue. I’m using it as one of several on-call editors while I revise, revise, revise. I’ve stopped giving myself a deadline to finish my book, opting instead for a natural rhythm that works around my other responsibilities. Writing, I’ve decided, should not be a chore. Wood begins with a quotation from Henry James: “There is only one recipe – to care a great deal for the cookery.” I’ve neglected other tasks – this blog, included – to concentrate on revising. Even if it’s for just 15 minutes a day, I am caring for the cookery. Following is a little taste of the main dish, served up in a well-oiled, cast iron pot.

Excerpt from Exit Strategy

© Julie Finigan Morris

In the end, her son’s body couldn’t fight the deadly bacteria any longer, hanging on until his exhausted organs slowed to a stop. When he started losing consciousness, Ruth Malmquist climbed into the hospital bed to lie beside him, holding his emaciated frame close to her chest and wishing she could transfer her heart’s beats to his. She smoothed his blond hair behind his ear, holding her hand against his cheek and whispered to him. Don’t be afraid sweetie, the angels will take care of you.

Her resolve, that this was God’s will and he would no longer suffer unbearable abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea got her through the night. She had to be strong for her other children. She had to show him that this would be a calm transition. She suppressed her anger. There was a reason for this. One day God will help me understand.

By the summer of 2008, the microscopic E.coli O157:H7 worked its way from a wild pig’s intestine, dropped in feces onto California soil, sucked up into the stems of spinach leaves to be harvested for packaging, and shipped across the country. Ruth had the misfortune of pulling a bag of the contaminated spinach off her local Hy-Vee supermarket’s produce shelves in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where it turned her young family’s life upside down. The tiny pinewood coffin was handmade, lovingly cut and sanded by the child’s older cousin, Liam, and Uncle Bob at the request of his grieving parents. It was a simple box, a reflection of his parents’ deeply held religious belief that salvation was not found in material things. The family arrived for the funeral dressed in their Sunday best, lined up at the front of the church to stoically acknowledge family and friends who had traveled to pay their respects. They had spent the past week by his bedside praying his frail body would overcome the bacteria that eventually shut down his kidneys. Three weeks earlier his mother had made him a smoothie, blending organic apple juice, bananas, and bagged spinach into a healthy snack. Ruth called it her “special green shake” to get the children to drink it. Now she stood at the altar of the small church they came to every Sunday, silent over her young son’s coffin.

This is the intersection of my life. A bubble, inside this church, between the “before” and “after.” Nothing will ever be the same after I walk out this church door today, into the glaring sunlight, his coffin sealed forever. What is the word for a mother who loses a child? Not widow. Not orphan. There is no word to describe what I am now. Maybe I’ll wake up and realize this is all a horrible dream. The most realistic dream I’ve ever had. Please, God, let this be a nightmare. Let me wake up. Let me have my son back. Our life back. I just want everything to go back to normal.

Anthony Morton stood uncomfortably in the back of the church, shifting his weight from one foot to another as he waited for the ceremony to end. He was sent to Iowa for the funeral from Bogey, Appell & Huffington’s law offices in Seattle by his boss, James Bogey, the nation’s top plaintiff lawyer in food poisoning cases. Bogey had a team of talented young paralegals who spent their days scouring the Center for Disease Control’s PulseNet website to study patterns of reported illnesses in the hopes of identifying new food borne illness outbreaks. It was a constant and profitable revenue stream for the firm. Bogey & Appell had made millions defending clients who had gotten sick from contaminated packaged salads, peanut butter and ground beef. They rarely went to trial, knowing that companies would opt for six and seven-figure settlements over negative publicity. It was the perfect formula for making a lot of money from a fluke glitch in the industrial food processing systems designed to prevent widespread contamination. All Morton could think of was his own two-year old son, running around in their spacious backyard as his wife grabbed and tickled the giggling toddler. He looked out-of-place in his gray, Brooks Brothers suit and polished brown wingtips, an obvious outsider in the dusty, simple setting of the Mormon Church. One of the family members approached him.

“Can I help you, Sir? This is a private service.”

“Uh, no, no,” Morton said. He put hands in his pocket and looked down at his shoes. “I am so sorry for your loss. I am here to let Mr. and Mrs. Malmquist know that my firm represents victims of irresponsible food companies that poison consumers.”

“Well, thank you, but we do not believe in suing anyone over this. Life is a gift and we are grateful we had him for the two years he was with us, but now he is with God. We do not intend to make money from this tragedy.”

“Of course. I understand. If I may just leave this with you in case they have any further questions. I would be happy to assist them with anything they need. There are strict product liability laws that make someone responsible for this tragedy.”

He reached out, offering his business card. The man turned and walked away. Morton walked to his rental car before he could meet the Malmquists. He at least had the decency to respect the family’s wishes on such a sad occasion. He’d follow up next week with a letter of condolence and his contact information.

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