It Shouldn’t Be Long Now

My Cancer Story

By week three, I have the chemo thing down. I’ve only thrown up twice. My apartment happens to be across the street from the Roger Maris Cancer Center in downtown Fargo, North Dakota, so I walk to my appointments, which are frequent since I’m getting daily radiation alongside chemotherapy. On chemo day, Thursday, I pop over to the hospital to get zapped, then head to the infusion center. Dr. Failing, my chemo oncologist, is at his outreach clinic today, so my evaluation appointment is with Susan, one of the nurse practitioners.] It goes well until I show her the rash on my arms.

“I’m not sure we should treat you today,” she says.

Susan thinks the rash is an allergic reaction to paclitaxel, one of the chemo drugs I’ve been getting. She takes pictures of my arms for Dr. Failing, then asks me to wait in the lobby until they discuss my symptoms. I’m nervous. The “low-dose” chemo treatments are supposed to help the radiation kill the tumor in my lung.

A nurse comes and says we’re going ahead with treatment, but I’ll be getting extra antihistamine and steroid to allay my skin reaction.

Before anyone guessed I had cancer, I saw a family doctor up in The Forks, where I spent some time writing before settling in Fargo. I went in for a check-up and mentioned that for a few days I’d had a sharp pain in my back. “I think I tore my lat,” I told the doctor. He suggested stretching and physical therapy.

He asked the routine questions: “Any family history of chronic illnesses?”

“I’m adopted. My biological mother had glaucoma.”

He nodded.

“My mom had breast cancer,” I added.

“That doesn’t count.”

I was small the first time I saw my mother’s mastectomy scars. The surgery was done right as World War II was ending, when she was in her mid-twenties. (I’m in my late fifties.) It looked like someone hacked off her breast with a machete. No reconstructive surgery. She didn’t talk about it much, other than to say it had been painful to tell my dad about it when he proposed to her six weeks after they met. I didn’t need to be related to her by blood to understand that such devastation might find me someday.

I left the doctor’s office intending not to return, though I ended up doing just that, because a few days later I coughed up some blood. The pain in my back wasn’t a pulled muscle; one lobe in my right lung had collapsed around my tumor. Because I’ve never smoked or otherwise used tobacco, no one was ready to use the cancer word just yet. To definitively diagnose the mass, they would stick a camera into my lung and also take a tissue sample to test for malignancy.

They tested for everything from live parasites to legionnaires’ disease. The next day I sat at home oddly fascinated as each negative test result popped up on the hospital’s app. Moments before the surgeon called to deliver the news, I read the final test result on my phone: adenocarcinoma present.

In between additional tests to see if the cancer had spread to my brain or my bones, I hauled my belongings to Fargo and kept working at my freelance gigs. For several weeks I didn’t tell anyone I had cancer. My doctors eventually gave it a lengthy medical name. Simply translated: stage-4 lung cancer.

The infusion wing at Roger Maris Cancer Center has dozens of semi-private cubicles. You get your own TV, you can order a sack lunch, and they bring you treats. This will be my first chemo round without a friend along to hold my hand, and I’m slightly proud to be flying solo. I click on the sports channel to see how the U.S. gymnastics team is faring in the summer 2021 Olympics. I used to be a gymnast.

A nurse comes in to check my monitor.

“This says your blood pressure is sixty! I don’t think that’s right,” she tells me.

She checks it herself, and it actually is that low.

“I feel OK,” I say.

My blood pressure recovers quickly, and the nurse decides it’s all right to start administering the chemo. She gets the chemo IV going, but by the time she turns to leave, I can tell something is wrong.

“That’s really hot,” I say, “in my stomach.”

The nurse stops the chemo and summons another nurse. Then my main nurse runs in. The heat in my abdomen morphs into awful pain. I whimper that I have to use the bathroom.

The nurses send for the NP, Susan, and someone gets a wheelchair to take me to the lavatory. After helping me pull down my shorts and sit on the toilet, they offer me privacy, but I don’t want them to leave. I sit there with the nurses clustered around me, positioned to keep me from falling forward or sideways. Finally I pee.

When we get back to my cubicle, they give me oxygen and more steroid and antihistamine. It doesn’t help. Susan tells my nurse to give me morphine.

“I don’t want morphine,” I say.

“It’s just two milligrams,” she says.

Two of my sisters have been addicted to narcotics. One is still alive; one isn’t.

“No morphine.”

Susan says they can’t resume the chemo if my pain isn’t managed soon. She offers me Toradol, a heavy-duty, non-narcotic NSAID. I agree, and the dose is sent through my IV. After about fifteen minutes, I can sit up and speak normally. No more paclitaxel for me though. I get only my secondary chemo drug today, along with a prescription for steroid pills to treat the rash.

“Will this goof things up?” I ask my nurse.

“Don’t worry. Your doctor will figure it all out,” she says kindly.

I want to hug her, but we’re still in the middle of a pandemic, so I settle for smiling at her from behind my mask.

The morning after chemo, I wake to find the rash has spread across my torso. I’m late to radiation, but the techs are understanding. Back home in the afternoon, I have a bad headache and check my temperature: 100.4 degrees F. I call the cancer center and speak with the nurse on call, who says to go to ER right away.

It’s a busy day at ER, and fever and a rash don’t get me to the head of the line. The triage nurse offers me a blanket and the option to wait outside on the lawn or in my car — protocol during the pandemic, I realize. In the waiting area I see a roped-off section for anyone with COVID-like symptoms. It’s hot outside, and the A/C in the old Jaguar I drive doesn’t always work, so I find a seat as far away from the COVID crowd as possible and settle in to wait.

            When my name is called, I’m taken to a small room off the main hallway, where a nurse gives me a gown. I put it on and sit in the bedside chair with my blanket wrapped around my legs. A doctor comes in.

“I’ve been reading about you,” he says.

The gentleness in his voice takes me aback. On my few prior visits to an ER, I encountered harried doctors who delivered a diagnosis and rushed off to the next patient. This doctor doesn’t hurry. He talks to me at length about my symptoms and then helps me onto the bed.

“Let’s have a look at that rash,” he says.

I haven’t showered since yesterday’s chemo, and a vague chemical smell comes off me. The gross red rash now covers most of my body, weaving into the fat rolls on my back, but the doctor’s face registers only compassion when he pulls up my gown to look.

“We’re going to take really good care of you,” he promises.

He orders lab work and a chest x-ray, but ultimately the treatment is simple: Tylenol for my headache and IV fluids to calm my fever. He tells me to keep taking the steroid pills. He has somehow also given me something no one else has since this cancer ordeal started: peace. In the quiet room I relax on the bed, like a bird safe in a nest. The nurses bring me water when I ask, but no one hovers or repeatedly pokes their head in to ask how I’m feeling.

Hours later, when my slow-drip IV bag finishes, the same doctor comes in and asks if I want to go home. I say yes.

“Let’s bust you out of here,” he says.

It’s dark outside when I find my car in the huge parking lot. The silver Jaguar belonged to my youngest sister. She lived in Utah for a while, and she and I would meet up in Idaho to see family. On one of our last trips home together, she brought the Jag. We drove around town all day visiting family, stopped at every other coffee shop we saw, cracked jokes no one else would get. It was one of the last times I saw her happy. Not long after, her addictions got the better of her and she ended her life. I ended up with the Jag. I’ve since paid thousands in repair bills to keep the damn thing running. My sis would have laughed her head off to hear that.

Once a week I see my radiation oncologist, Dr. Sommer. That’s her first name. She has strawberry-blonde hair and wears pretty dresses. She rarely talks to me about my radiation treatments. She wants to know about my writing, how my week went, if I’m getting some exercise.

“Energy begets energy,” she says in her sparkly voice, and I believe her. She tells me to push through the waves of fatigue by moving my body, and not to nap for more than thirty minutes at a time.

She also is a brilliant specialist who can calculate how and where to dose someone with gamma rays to zap malignant tumors. My cancer is inoperable. If I survive, it will be because of Dr. Failing’s chemo cocktails and Dr. Sommer’s zaps.

When I go for radiation, my job is to lie still on a hydraulic bed while Dr. Sommer and her tech squad go Star Wars on my tumor. They’re not actually blasting it away; they’re strategically interrupting the DNA inside the tumor cells, which, if my body cooperates, will encourage the cells to self-destruct. It could take a while for this process to occur. My tumor might shrink but not disappear, and it could resist the radiation assault and continue to grow or spread. After my radiation count is done, I’ll get deep scanned again, and we’ll know if the rebels have destroyed the Death Star.

One of my next radiation appointments is longer because I have to get fitted for a body cradle that will hold me ultra-still while they zap a lymph node near my windpipe that has cancerous cells. When I tell the lead technician I’m sick from chemo, she says to do the best I can. “If you have to sit up and cough, that’s fine, but we’ll need to stop and take another positioning x-ray.”

I lie back on the table and will myself into “the zone,” that state of hyper-focus that sets in when a gymnast performs a routine during competition. You don’t hear anything or see anything except the apparatus you’re interacting with. I didn’t start gymnastics training until I was twelve years old, but once I did, it was all I wanted to do. I was a natural and quickly racked up wins and press clippings. At a state meet held in a college gymnasium, I threw a double back aerial on a wrestling mat. Not many athletes will try that maneuver without the advantage of a spring-loaded floor. One of the local TV stations featured my stunt in their sports montage for months.

My athletic career looked promising until I blew out my knee on a bar dismount. Ligamental repairs are common enough nowadays, but back then the doctors couldn’t do anything for me. I did not cope well. When it was clear gymnastics was over, I drove my mom’s car onto the railroad tracks near where we lived and waited for the train. I hadn’t thought to check the train schedule, and I sat there for a while. When no train appeared to mow me down, my teenage brain eventually decided that killing myself would be like falling off the balance beam and refusing to get back on. I needed to finish the routine even if it meant a lower score.

I now weigh nearly twice what I did as a gymnast, but my body is nonetheless in starvation mode, and Dr. Failing is concerned. My esophagus has started to burn from the radiation. Some days I can barely sip water. I’ve been coughing up more blood.

“If it happens again, you have to come right in or go to ER,” Dr. Failing tells me. He presses his fingers against my neck and then my abdomen. His efficient, clinical touch is comforting; he’s in this with me however things turn out.

We agree that I will ask my friend Jen to come help out for a few days, since my body will reach a temporary low point now that my chemo is done. I’m fortunate to have a cadre of family and friends ready to come and stay with me, though as much as I love them the idea of compromising my self-reliance, even temporarily, is unsettling.

I was forty when my second marriage ended, and I decided to stay single for as long as that marriage had lasted: I called it my Seven Years in Tibet. Doing life solo again was hard at first, but standing on my own healed me in places I didn’t know were broken. I fixed up this old house I’d bought, learned how to cook, went on long hikes with my dog. My freelance career took off. After the seven years, I started dating again but found it no longer suited me. I felt more content and productive on my own. I ended the fling and went back to Tibet.

Jen arrives mid-week and sleeps on an air mattress in my living room. We maneuver around each other in tight quarters; it’s hard for my friend to watch me suffer. I have cabin fever and hope we can drive an hour to Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, over the weekend. Instead, during the night, I cough up more blood.

“Sorry,” I say when I wake her at 3 am on Saturday to drive me to ER.

At the front desk I let my exhaustion show: “I have lung cancer, and I’m coughing up blood.” They don’t bother with triage. A nurse takes me to a room. Jen is allowed to come, too.

It’s a different doctor this time. He orders a scan and blood workup, then returns to say my platelets and white blood cell counts have dropped well below normal ranges. Dr. Failing had warned me this could happen, so I’m not surprised, but I feel a jolt of fear when the ER doctor says I have to be admitted to the hospital.

“That tumor can have blood vessels in it that throw off blood as the chemo does its thing,” he tells me. “We have to get you through it.”

I’m taken to the hospital adjacent to the Maris center, where I stay over the weekend. Jen goes back and forth to my apartment, fetching a change of clothes, my cellphone charger. She and I crack jokes as the various nurses and doctors come to check on me. When it’s time for her to leave, I ride the elevator with her down to the lobby. We walk outside and say goodbye on the front sidewalk. When I get back up to the patient floor, the receptionist looks alarmed.

“You aren’t supposed to leave,” she says.

It’s medically safer for me to remain in the ward.

“Honestly,” my nurse tells me later, “I don’t blame you for wanting a little fresh air.”

I get as comfortable as possible on the inflatable hospital mattress and stare out the seventh-floor window at the night skyline. For the first time in my life, I’m glad my parents are dead. They would be heartbroken to see me like this. My dad especially would blame his smoking for possibly being a cause, though based on the timing and other circumstances I know that wasn’t the case.

Monday morning, when Dr. Failing comes to check on me, I’ve stopped coughing up blood. My counts are still low, but I suddenly have a lot of energy. I ask to walk across the campus to my radiation appointment, but the hospital aide who comes to get me insists I ride in a wheelchair.

“I’ll get fired if I let you walk,” she says.

In the radiation waiting area there’s a strip of carpet, and I dance back and forth across it. I pirouette and add a wrist flick.

Dr. Sommer walks by and says, “That’s lovely. You used to be a ballerina!”

“Gymnast,” I tell her cheerfully. After my knee healed well enough, I was able to dance in theater shows, though never at the level of a prima spinning around on pointe shoes.

            Later that week I see Dr. Failing and have labs drawn again. My counts have risen slightly.

“The numbers will continue to rise,” Dr. Failing says with his quiet assurance. In the long white coat he wears over his suits, he is the winter to Dr. Sommer’s summer.

After my radiation concludes, I’ll start getting immunotherapy infusions to help my body keep fighting off the cancer. No guarantees, but Dr. Failing says immunotherapy drugs can help delay or even prevent new tumors from growing. Meanwhile, he says, I should eat and exercise as much as possible.

I go home and do neither. In the five days until my final course of radiation starts, I sleep late, stop showering, watch TV. My esophagus is still burning. Antacid medication helps, but sometimes I throw the pills right back up. I spike a low-grade fever off and on.

The awful smell of my chemo-treated body finally prods me to shower. When I lather on soap, my skin feels like paper. My knee aches, reminding me that I’m no longer the girl who could flip her body through the air. And now cancer has hijacked my brain. Technically there’s nothing wrong with it, but I can’t focus when I try to read or write. I haven’t worked since starting treatment. I can barely follow an email, and it takes an incredible effort to compose a short response. Sometimes I give up and just delete them.

From my living-room chair, I stare out the window at the life going on outside. On the busy street people are coming and going, on their way to and from somewhere, whereas I merely exist. I start to doubt the point of hanging on. This time I won’t need to wait for a train. I could just stop treatment and let nature take its course.

Meanwhile, despite my long silences, the people who love me keep up a long-distance campaign to help me. They launch a fundraiser to help cover my bills. They send gifts and messages: You are not alone. We got your back. They take it on faith that I’ll come back to them. I take it on faith they’ll be there when I do.

After my final radiation treatment in mid-September, I see Dr. Sommer in her office. She gives me a hug.

“You did so well!” she says.

I will get deep scanned again toward the end of the year, but we already know from my radiation imaging that my main tumor has been shrinking. She says the little node is diminished as well.

“I was just mopping up cells,” she tells me.

I embrace the good news and go ring the celebratory big bell in the main lobby. It’s premature since I still have a year of immunotherapy ahead of me, but I like it when everyone claps and cheers.

Six weeks into immunotherapy, I develop a painful infection. A nurse practitioner shows me the images from my original scan five months ago, and the new one, and points out wispy clouds that suggest I have pneumonitis, which can be lethal if unchecked.

I stare at the scans, the blob that is my heart, the black sections in my lungs that show where the air is. On the earlier scan, due to the contrast solution injected into my bloodstream, the cancer in my right lung is lit up like northern lights.

 “Where’s my tumor?” I ask.

“There’s no cancer showing reaction to the contrast as of now,” she says casually.

My heart does a little backflip. Is my tumor gone?

“We’ll never know,” Dr. Failing says when I see him. The scar tissue in my lung could be masking residual malignancy. There might be cancer cells lurking elsewhere in my body undetectable even by a detailed PET scan.

I bite back my frustration. I expected at the very least a moment to mark victory or mourn defeat.

“Whether we managed to get it all with chemoradiation or if we can get it with immunotherapy, if we get ten years down the road, it won’t matter,” Dr. Failing says reasonably. I can’t argue with his logic.

I have to take steroid medication for a month to treat the pneumonitis. The high dosage gives me the jitters and makes the left side of my face swell. It also doesn’t work. The pneumonitis leaps into my other lung. The next scan I get reveals a string of twinkly lights on the perimeters of both my lungs and in my left shoulder bone. My tumor had babies.

When I see Dr. Failing, he doesn’t do an exam. This appointment is just to talk. He says it’s evident the immunotherapy treatment isn’t working for me. More chemo can buy me some time, but now that it’s metastasized, my cancer is incurable.

            “At some point it will take your life,” he says quietly. “A year, maybe two.” I can tell it hurts him to say this.

I take the Jag to a repair shop to get the tie rods fixed. I want it in tip-top shape for when I can finally get over to Duluth, Minnesota, to take pictures of the aerial lift bridge that spans the ship canal. The hundred-year-old bridge is a key setting for a story I’m writing. While I wait for the repair, I hike over to the Fryn’ Pan for breakfast. The café is filled with white-haired retirees, something I’ll never be. They are fat, skinny, balding, hunched over, absolutely beautiful.

Two guys sitting near me talk animatedly about the strategies used in the attack on Pearl Harbor. Boys and their wars, I think, amused. A man seated in the booth behind me is talking about how his granddaughter declined a shotgun wedding. She had the baby, waited to fit into the dress she wanted, and then got married. He admires the courage of her generation. The retirees’ cheery talk consistently lands in two places: memories they’re busy making and fond memories of the past.

            Back when I was dancing with a troupe in Washington State, our director took us to a choreo camp in LA. World trampoline champ George Hery was teaching a tumbling class out on the quad. My dance mates didn’t know who he was, but I couldn’t get out there fast enough. I found George showing a group of dancers how to do dive rolls. When it was my turn, I added an aerial sequence to the end of my flying somersault.

George started laughing. “Let’s jump tramp,” he said. He had a competition-size trampoline set up on the grass. I hopped on, took a single bounce and did a high back flip, tapped the backs of my thighs before kicking out of the tuck well above the jump mat.

            “How long has it been since you did a double?” George wanted to know.

            I shrugged. “Five years.”

            I did more flips, landing easily on the soft trampoline bed.

            “Your timers are perfect,” George said.

            It was crazy to suggest doing a high-level stunt after being out of the sport for so long. If it had been any other coach, I might have told him no. But I knew George had the eye to gauge my capability, and I could feel it myself.

            George got on the trampoline with me. “I’ll be here if you need me,” he said. I didn’t. I knocked out six doubles easy as pie, feeling quiet delight as my body clicked into the acro rhythms that were as natural for me as breathing.

            George gave me a coach hug. “Brave girl,” he said, before I skipped back inside to rejoin the dance.

In February I decide to head to Duluth over the long weekend before restarting chemo. It’s hare-brained to drive across Minnesota during winter storm season, but in the now-or-maybe-never scenario that is my life, I load up the Jag and hit the road. Six miles across the Minnesota border, on a county road that promises a shortcut to the eastbound highway, the swirling snow turns to full whiteout. I click on the emergency blinkers and creep forward, following the broken yellow line. I can’t risk pulling off to the side and losing the road entirely; it’s creep forward or stop and wait to get rear-ended. At the highway junction, I think I can turn around without T-boning someone in the whiteout. I misread the terrain; what I think is the road shoulder is actually a ditch full of snow piled higher than the roadway. I drive into the ravine and get stuck at a downward angle. I get out to grab my shovel from the trunk and am instantly wet in the blowing snow. When I make it to the trunk, it’s frozen shut. The butane lighter I keep in my jockey box is out of fluid, so I can’t heat up the trunk lock. I get back in the car to warm up.

Someone pulls open my driver’s-side door. It’s a man. As tall as he is, he’s buried in snow to his mid-calves. I can just make out his pickup truck parked up on the shoulder.

            “Keep the wheel straight,” he tells me and leans into the door frame.

            The tires chomp snow, but the Jag doesn’t budge.

            “I can give you a ride back to town,” he offers, “but I can’t wait around in this.”

            I can’t decide: stay with my dead duck car or get in a faded brown pickup truck with a man I don’t know? I thank the stranger and send him on his way, then call 911. The operator puts me on the line with the county sheriff. They already have a hundred vehicles in distress the sheriff tells me, and they’ll have to wait until the weather clears enough for them to visually locate my car down in the ditch. He tells me to keep my exhaust pipes clear of snow to avoid carbon monoxide blowing back into the car while I’m running the heater. I start to cry a little — not because of the long wait ahead, but for my now canceled Duluth trip.

            With renewed determination, I break into my trunk and haul all my gear into the back seat. I have some food, water, and extra clothes. I also have tire chains and the shovel. I might be able to dig my way out if the wind dies down. As a backup, I dial my insurance company’s number to get in line for a tow truck, mindful to keep my phone usage to a minimum because I don’t have a charger that will work in the Jag’s cigarette lighter. A dozen more cars stop, all people needing to get home in the blizzard but nonetheless caring enough to make sure I’m uninjured, that I have gas, that someone is coming to get me. I have to keep hanging up on the tow-truck’s call-waiting to talk to the people who are stopping to offer me a ride.

            The guy in the brown pickup truck comes back with a tow rope. “I couldn’t bear the thought of you sitting out here,” he tells me.

In a few days I will take the Jag back to the auto shop to get the undercarriage checked out; my sis’s old car will be miraculously undamaged by its trip into the ditch. Maybe I’ll make it to Duluth when the weather breaks, though it seems less important now. Climbing around a bridge isn’t going to delay or undo what lies ahead for me.

The snow is still blowing wildly as the good Samaritan secures his rope to the Jag’s chassis. “Put it in neutral,” he tells me. I barely have the gear shift in place before he’s back in his truck and yanking the Jag back and upward out of the snowy ditch. The wild ride reminds me of when I was a little girl, and my dad used to lift me up by the back of my britches and swing me high over his head. I always howled with laughter.

It’s a Good Day to Write Like Water!

Dear Writers: Meet me over at The Narrative Project for a class on story structure I’m teaching on Thursday, October 29, 5 p.m. Pacific via Zoom.

Over the years, a lot of the requests I get for help with memoirs and novels pertain to structure. As we all know, establishing the architecture of a story can be tricky because the story’s structural design is both a writing tool and a container for the action line, but the structure should not upstage nor inhibit the unfolding action of the narrative, and neither should it be confused with the plot. One issue we all face is that despite everything we know about story and structure, every story is ultimately unique, so we have to somehow apply everything we know and simultaneously forget everything we know each time we conceive, refine, diagnose, and maximize a story’s structure. I have some techniques I use in my editing that authors and publishers have appreciated, so I’ll share those as a type of To Do list I hope you will find helpful.

Here’s the link for my latest post about the class, as featured on The Narrative Project blog.

Be sure to register in advance for Write Like Water. After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.

Oh, yeah, the class is free. Cheers!

XO Laurel Leigh

Darrell, In Milwaukee

Dear Writers:

Years ago, I walked into a grocery store parking lot and saw this awesome blue van that had an old camper shell framed into its top, curtains on the windows, and one undersized spare tire.

The van became a feature in my story “Darrell, In Milwaukee,” published by CLOVER, A LITERARY RAG in the Winter 2013 v6 issue. It was the first story of mine that CLOVER published, and it always will be a very sweet memory to have worked with the marvelous editors, Mary Elizabeth Gillilan and Norman Green. CLOVER retired last year and sold out its back issues, so I’m putting the “Darrell” story here in its entirety. I hope you have half the fun reading it that I did writing it!


Guy name of Ken—that Darrell knew from around—had picked up a ’62 blue Chevy van at the junkyard run by that Dakota fellow. Ken cut out the roof of the van and framed in the top section of a camper shell he found at the same junkyard. Most of the camper windows were busted out and had plywood over, but the van had all its windows so a guy could still see out the sides if he hunkered down a bit.

Not bad, Darrell said, when he first saw it.

The Chevy’s engine ran rough and one of the front wheels was an under-size spare, but Ken rarely drove it farther than the mini mart for cold ones. Which he and Darrell drank while sitting on the lawn chairs Ken kept in the van. Sometimes they watched TV. Ken ran an extension cord out the laundry room window of his house and in through one of the van windows to plug in a portable set. But then Dot grew embarrassed by that wreck of a—well, she hardly knew what to call it, and right there in the driveway where everyone could see. She told Ken it went or she went.

I’ll go a buck and a quarter, Darrell said. About half what Ken was into it for. But Dot wasn’t happy, which meant Ken wasn’t happy, so he told Darrell, You’re an asshole, and handed over the key.

Darrell felt a freedom in the Chevy. He’d been without wheels for a while and liked that he could go somewhere and his new house came, too. The first place he drove was to the Y to collect his gear and ask for a refund on a week’s rent. Against policy, but Mickey was good that way and handed him the cash right back.

Going off with la mujer? Mickey asked.

Darrell had sneaked the same gal up to his room a couple nights. Also against the rules but, unlike the weekday manager, Mickey never hassled a guy.

Ain’t seen her around, Darrell said. I think she quit at Goldmann’s.

The elevator was still broken, but to keep fit, Darrell liked to take the stairs anyway. He got his duffle bag out of the fourth-floor room and jogged back down the steps.

Buena suerte, Mickey said, when Darrell went by him again to leave.

You too, Darrell said, and held out his hand.

He spent what Mickey gave him and then some on a used rim and tire for the Chevy. Since getting to Milwaukee, he’d been taking day jobs, banging nails, pouring concrete, but it was time for a step up. After swapping out the wheel, he went to see about a job driving backhoe for the same outfit Ken worked for.

The job was to dig out one of the foundation holes for a pair of reinforced concrete towers that would be office buildings. The towers had to be ready for the Bicentennial 4th of July fanfare, and the job foreman said there was pressure from up top to finish the dirt work ahead of schedule.

Darrell told how he’d run the only backhoe on a big job up in Sheboygan, and he had a reference on official company stationery.

We got to go hard or go to hell, the foreman said.

That don’t bother me, Darrell said.

They shook hands and the next morning Darrell walked onto the dig site.

City lets us make noise between eight and four, Slim told Darrell.

Slim was the other backhoe driver.

Lunch is whenever the puke wagon shows up.

Sounds pretty standard, Darrell said.

They went over to the Poclain that Darrell would be running.

Slim picked at his ear. I’m gonna have you start digging on the south hole, he said, as if he’d been the one to decide and they both knew otherwise. Darrell kept a poker face when the foreman walked up and Slim had to quit pretending.

Darrell climbed into the cab of the Poclain, which he’d found out from Slim was a European rig the foreman had picked up on a trade. The bucket was wider than usual but otherwise it had a slick setup. The foreman had marked out where he wanted the south ramp going into the hole and Darrell got to it, setting a pace that had the dirt haulers moving. Altogether noisy as hell, not to mention hotter than hell inside the cab, but Darrell liked the power of the big trackhoe. How he could guide the shovel to knock away the packed earth and then scoop it up and plunk it right into the back of the waiting truck, just as smooth as if he was dropping in handfuls of dirt, but with massive each shovel-full he could see a difference in the deepening hole. The trackhoe left its mark. Just like the tower going into the hole would leave its mark, growing up out of the ground like a tree putting down its roots.

At break time, Darrell got in line at the puke truck. He bought a roast beef sandwich and a bag of peanuts, smiled at the chunky gal working the window. She reminded him of this nurse he’d met in Nam. Over in the shit, as he thought of it. The one time he got shot was in the shoulder and the doctors decided to leave the bullet in. The nurses, the one gal in particular, had been real sweet to him. A helluva gal, wide end and all—if he’d been telling someone he would’ve held his hands apart to show just how wide, but meant it in a nice way, because when it was all said and done she’d been the settle-down type a guy might’ve put down roots for if he could.

On his day off, Darrell worked on the Chevy. He spent the morning replacing the timing chain and got the engine running pretty smooth. For inside he used scrap wood to build a box bench that would be good for storage and sleeping. Then he wanted a shower, which Ken had been letting him use while Dot was out getting her hair done. Erecting the beehive, Ken called it, but in a way that let on he was still sweet on her after ten years. This time she got home a little early and accidentally walked in on Darrell lathering up. To say the least, she was not happy about it.

To get back on her good side, Darrell offered to help Ken redo the bathroom, which Dot had been wanting. They pulled the old shower and put in a fancy one delivered by the Dakota. Pulling a contact on a day job he’d worked, Darrell got Ken a good deal on some tile so there was enough left in the budget for the oak sink cabinet Dot had her eye on at the home supply. She warmed up quite a bit over that. When the bathroom was done, she said Darrell could use the shower again and also got in her head to sew him curtains for the Chevy. At first it was funny, but Darrell had to admit they made things look homey. Dot still didn’t like the Chevy in the driveway, so Darrell parked at the end of the block when he visited and they all got along fine after that.

Take a Komatsu, for instance, Ken was saying. Some might say they build shit, but they build a good excavator, even if you might say under-powered.

It was after work and a few of the crew were at the A-Frame, a couple blocks from the work site. Poor excuse for a bar with only outdoor tables and the one homely bar gal, but the beers were cold. Darrell set his empty beer mug down on the wooden picnic table and held up three fingers until the gal nodded. He and the boys had been talking about the job—their other main topic aside from gals and government.

A lot of it’s economically driven and all that, how they build the new equipment, Ramon said.

Ramon had a way of talking real slow that could get a guy tapping his foot, but Darrell had to admit junior knew how to hustle. Ramon now worked under Ken, who’d got promoted to lead mechanic last week.

They all thought Slim was a rough operator.

Point is, you might say Slim is a mule in the kitchen, Ken said. He’s gonna rip that Case apart he ain’t careful.

A jackass is cute when it’s young, Ramon said in his same drawl.

That busted all three of them up. They laughed harder when Slim and his buddies showed up and took over the end of their table.

What’s so funny, Slim said.

You had to be there, Darrell told him.

Slim tossed a small bag on the table.

What’s that? Darrell said to go along.

Genuine Indian arrowheads, Slim said, only he said ‘Injun.’

You got those here?

Slim picked his ear.

Hell, I dug up Cochise for all I know, he said.

On a Saturday, Jake came in from Whitewater, where he’d been framing tract houses. Darrell was glad to see him. He liked Ken and the boys at work just fine, but when it came down to it, Jake was his best friend. They’d been together in Nam and that bond stays. Jake wanted to go get his kid, who wanted to go to the zoo again.

Been here so many times they should let us in for free, Darrell said.

They got hotdogs at the concession, then the kid tore off running for the zebra pen.

Jake said, as if it’d been a long while since they’d seen her, but it was just last week, Can you believe that little tyke? Looks more and more like Celia, right down to that hair.

Any luck with the sister? Darrell asked.

Jake shook his head no.

The sister—the kid’s aunt on her mother’s side—had custody. Never mind the kid pitched a fit every time Jake had to leave her. The deal was, the kid wasn’t Jake’s blood. He and the kid’s mother had never outright married, so when Celia died—weak heart—the kid went to her older sister by law. When the sister brought the kid from California out to Wisconsin, Jake up and followed, and he and Darrell of course got in touch. Darrell considered it luck in some respects.

He told Jake about finding Indian bones in the foundation holes, how he didn’t think it was so right to just dig them up but what could you do?

Cochise and them had been soldiers. They’d been in the shit, too, just over here, he said.

Jake of course got what he meant.

The kid wanted to ride one of the stripy horses.

Might buck you off, Darrell told her.

She didn’t think so but settled for a ride on Jake’s shoulders. He hopped around and she spit up hotdog on his head.

Oh shit, Jake said. Don’t tell your aunt.

Oh shit, the kid said.

You don’t say that, sweetie. Jake told her. He used his tee shirt to clean off her face.

One morning Darrell got to work and heard Slim talking about how there was a new office gal. Red-haired. When Darrell went by the trailer to pick up his paycheck, there she was on a step-stool putting papers in a filing box. Darrell said he didn’t mind waiting for her to finish. Her name was Mona.

How about you and me go out sometime, he said. Continue reading

WRITE LIKE WATER: How to Find and Follow the Natural Path of Your Story

Dear Writers:

I’m really happy to be collaborating with the The Narrative Project and the wonderful writer/coach Cami Ostman for a conversation we are calling WRITE LIKE WATER: How to Find and Follow the Natural Path of Your Story, on January 14, 2020, at 6 p.m. Pacific time. This two-hour virtual class taught by Yours Truly will be offered FREE through The Narrative Project. The focus is your story’s structure: how to find it, and how to fix it.

Over the years, a lot of the requests I get for help with memoirs and novels pertain to structure. As we all know, establishing the architecture of a story can be tricky because the story’s structural design is both a writing tool and a container for the action line, but the structure should not upstage nor inhibit the unfolding action of the narrative, and neither should it be confused with the plot. One issue we all face is that despite everything we know about story and structure, every story is ultimately unique, so we have to somehow apply everything we know and simultaneously forget everything we know each time we conceive, refine, diagnose, and maximize a story’s structure. I have some techniques I use in my editing that authors and publishers have appreciated, so I’ll share those as a type of To Do list I hope you will find helpful.

If you want to spend a couple hours talking structure with Cami and me, here’s the link to register:…/regist…/u5Qqf-iqrjMjmiX38_c3VtGYp9KQrQcZQw.

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the Zoom meeting.

XO Laurel Leigh

A Light in the Darkness (Or, Watching the Fireflies)

Dear Writers: I really appreciated the imagery and insight into writing in this post from The Eye-Dancers. I had to share it!


It’s night–a warm, muggy summer night in the hills of east-central Vermont.  It’s late.  I’ve always been a night person.  Even though I arise by five thirty most mornings, I still shake hands with midnight from time to time.  Tonight is one of those nights.

I’m at the window, the breeze wafting in, carrying with it the sound of crickets as they play their fiddles, unseen, in the grass that needs mowing.  Out there, beyond the house, is the meadow–five acres’ worth, surrounded on all sides by woodlands.  It’s a private spot, down a dirt road.  There is no neighbor within a half-mile.  And while sometimes, the distant sound of a car engine or chainsaw can be heard, for the most part, it is quiet here–except for the crickets and the hoot owls and the creatures of the night who crawl and run and slither through the grass.

I’m not…

View original post 610 more words


Dear Writers:

Who can resist Scampers?!?!

Hey, Look! A Writer Fellow!

It’s time to win a signed, hardcover copy my new picture book: Scampers Thinks Like A Scientist!

Scampers Thinks Like a Scientist is the book that received a five-star review from Foreward Reviews. It’s the book that nabbed a glowing notice from the difficult-to-please Kirkus. And it’s the book that stars the cutest mouse in the history of ever.

Oh. My. God. Just look at that widdle face!

So let’s get started!

How To Enter

To enter the Scampers drawing, all you need to do is leave a comment below that answers this question:

Which fictional character would you most want to have as a next-door neighbor?

That’s it! Leave a comment and you’ll be entered in the random drawing for Scampers!

But Wait!

Do you already have a copy of Scampers? That’s great! Thank you!

Enter the contest anyway.

After all, if you win, you can…

View original post 180 more words

There Are Many Kinds of Scars

Dear Writers:
I’m fortunate to be able to say that the very first writing group I was in is still going strong eighteen years later. Our group has been a wonderful constant in my writing life, and I’m amazed at the insights I get from my mates at Dogpatch Writers Collective. As usual, they had much to say about my last piece of writing, and I’m now inspired to finish revising my essay.

Thanks, Dogpatch!

XO Laurel Leigh

Dogpatch Writers Collective

Dogpatch writer Laurel Leigh’s essay explores how as a child she experienced the scars of her mother’s mastectomy and how those issues of image and identity carried into her adult life. Here’s an excerpt of “Scars” and our comments about this deeply honest piece of writing.

The author’s mother on her wedding day.

The wound in my chest was open and wide, and I could see the layers of my skin disappearing into the circular black hole. As a kid growing up in the country and later an acrobat, I’d had plenty of scrapes and bruises, but I’d never had a cut that deep. I was engrossed by how deep the hole was—about an inch.

The doc came back to the table and explained that the wound leakage had just been fluid, but it likely would re-occur if he used liquid anesthesia. If I was tough enough to look at…

View original post 1,291 more words

Win a Doodle! Hooray and Huzzah!

Dear Writers:

If there possibly is anyone who knows me who doesn’t know my rather shady past as self-appointed fan club prez (some rude people have brought up the “S” word, but I think that’s totally uncalled for, and part of the proof is that a recent post of his linked to a post of mine, which means we’re sort of friends, so there) of that Writer Fellow Mike Allegra’s doodles . . .

I kind of lost track of that last sentence. Anyhoo, the esteemed doodler is after a long hiatus hosting another doodle contest with fabulous incentives. Plus you don’t have to do much at all to enter. Go on his blog and talk about yourself. Who doesn’t love doing that? Hit a couple share buttons or write a book review if you are a readerly sort. And in return, you get to be in a drawing to win a super-amazing doodle, which if you want could be a doodle of a pal for a certain salamander I know. Head over to Writer Fellow’s site to get the details!

XO Laurel Leigh

Hey, Look! A Writer Fellow!

I really like hosting blog contests!

And I really, really like doodling!

And I really, really, really like the fact that some people like my doodles!

So it is time once again for my semi-annual


Who will be the lucky winner? Will it be YOU?

The grand (and only) prize will be a custom made, one-of-a-kind, Mike Allegra doodle of ANYTHING YOU WANT!

“Anything?” you ask.

Yes, anything—provided that “anything you want” isn’t perverted. I’m a children’s book author, so get your mind out of the gutter!

Otherwise, yes. ANYTHING YOU WANT!

Past contest winners have asked for all kinds of doodles. Like exotic birds…

(Click to enlarge.)

A caffeine gnome…

(Click to enlarge.)

A raven shapeshifter (whatever that is)…

(Click to enlarge.)

A woman doing yoga and holding a pen as the ghost of her dearly departed dog looks on…

(Click to enlarge.)

And (of…

View original post 276 more words


Dear Writers:

Nope, we simply can’t get enough of Sully the Salamander! Now that Writer Fellow has gone and started a writing contest in the name of the one and only Sully. It’s just about open season for topics and style, and you can read the details on his post:

Hey, Look! A Writer Fellow!

Will YOU be the lucky winner?

Last week on this blog I asked you a question: “Should I start a writing contest?”

I followed up my question with a promise: “If there is enough enthusiasm for a writing contest, I will start a writing contest.”

So. Was there enough enthusiasm for a writing contest?

Sort of!

And that’s good enough for me.

Welcome to the First Annual
Sully Award for Excellence in Writerishness!

The (one and only) winner will receive a bunch of valuable prizes!

A $20 gift card to Starbucks, because writers need to wake up before writing.
A $10 gift card to iTunes, because writers need to be in the right mood while writing.
A $20 Gift card to Barnes & Noble so you can read after writing.
And, best of all, a beautiful SULLY AWARD CERTIFICATE, because great writers deserve great accolades. The certificate will look something like…

View original post 366 more words