Author: Rose Eggert
Title: A Woman in the River
Genre: Commercial Fiction, Women’s Fiction
Comps: The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali meets White Teeth by Zadie Smith and The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
Hook line: After the accidental drowning of her youngest child, Joline Delaney refuses to speak for years, until an old flame turned homeless vet blows a hole in the hydro dam, releasing the baby’s bones and Joline’s tongue.
Pitch: 1973. ERA. Women’s March. End of War. Joline Delaney is stuck in a trailer with 4 hungry kids awaiting the return of sailor-husband, Jacky from war. When the children chase a cat onto the ice-covered river, Joline falls through and the baby drowns. Joline refuses to speak for years – until a homeless vet blows a hole in the dam, releasing the baby’s bones and Joline’s tongue. The aftermath spans decades and lives. Joline’s adult children return armed with clashing versions of who is to blame for the tragedy.
Prose Sample: The following scenes are taken from Part 1 - A Goddammed Woman - March 29, 1973
Beans roiled in the pot like little lost souls, coming to a viscous simmer. Joline stood at the stove, potlids hissing, children fighting at her feet. She turned to shoo them from the sizzling skillet, grabbing the handle, burning her wrist, instead of a small head. She cried, tried to find the salve. It was not safe for children to be where she frothed and churned. She would not cook. In the next room, four kids in need of something she could not give. Bread and milk. She could not bear another day of fighting over what was left.
It was snowing, fat splats on the stoop. Driving anywhere seemed impossible. Even if she could get the car started. Even if she had the money. Joline and ice melting down. The trailer court still cloaked in darkness, fog encroaching from the river, she made her way across the road to the pay phone, clad in her nightgown, an old sweater, and Jacky’s rubber boots. Arms clasped tight against the cold, she let the phone ring twice and hung up. This was the signal to her sister to call her back. She waited, bare toes curling inside the cold boots. Yes, Vera would come. Joline slipped back in darkness, crossing before a sanding truck, eyes like dark moons in the headlights. The startled driver crossed himself, cursing softly, hazard lights pulsing on silted snowbanks like tired souls. Kitchen lights were winking on. Early risers making coffee. Others were out scraping ice from windshields for first shift. No one seemed to notice Joline there swallowed by darkness. She crept back into bed, shivering and dizzy with children and bed sheets smelling of ammonia.
Vera was unpacking groceries. A jar of peanut butter, two loaves of bread. Butter. Milk. Baby cereal. The children all loved the sweet thickness of it. The baby with the mouth like a bird. Joline too, mouth half open, spooning mouthful after mouthful, recounting Jacky’s letter. Troops were standing down, she told Vera. Jacky was probably back aboard ship already, making cash by cutting hair.
“We’ll buy new clothes for the kids – for the baby’s baptism,” said Joline.
“God. If there is one, doesn’t give a rat’s ass if this baby is baptized or not,” Vera said, “Save your damned money for food.”
“I’ll pay you back,” said Joline.
“This isn’t about money,” said Vera, “It’s about God.” Having more babies under the circumstances made no sense to Vera at all. She begged Joline to do something to save herself before Jacky got home. As for Vera, she would have kids when hell freezes over. She snapped clean sheets, reminding the kids to always use the bathroom before bed.
“You’re in hell already,” Vera told her, “There’s a sin in there somewhere, sister.” She left for work. Aggravated.
In Joline’s tiny kitchen, four hungry kids. Iris, Warren, Rita – the baby eating cereal from the floor. Rita feeding bread to a minnow gasping in the empty money jar.
“Put the fish back in the river,” Warren said, reaching for her glass, "Or the cat gets the milk.”
"No," Rita said, "The kitty run’d away in a hat."
“Ran away in the baby’s hat,” said Warren. Iris pretended not to hear. She was engrossed in a book about a mother who kissed children and cooked.
The bonnet! Joline disappeared. The children were not at all frightened by the slamming door. Soon enough she appeared, pale and spectral, cotton gloves covering her raw hands, slippery with the salve Vera had brought. Joline kissed each of them on the cheek. The children, accustomed to her tirades, were frightened by such tenderness.
Joline grabbed the startled baby and vanished out the door. Spotting the cat in the puckers dressed for baptism, she went down the slippery path, hair flying, baby dangling like a puppet. Iris, Warren, and Rita followed her down, the sad fish in the money jar held out like a beacon. Joline stopped. Stomped at them.
“Get dressed for Church!” she cried. Everyone knew it was Saturday. “Iris,” she hissed, the shrillness of her voice sending Iris and Warren scurrying to do as they were told. Rita and the sloshing minnow took a direct route to the river.
The steepness of the riverbank, a few tentative steps. Jackie’s rubber boots not even buckled, Joline went sliding down.
The children found their mother on the ice, nightgown billowing, face bleeding. Cotton gloves, slippery salve. The squirming baby. Rita with the minnow sloshing. The cat on a branch frozen into ice. A crack like gunshot. Rita jumped, took a step.
"Stop," said Iris, holding her breath. She and Warren were watching from the riverbank. Iris touched her brother’s shoulder, holding him back. "Rita,” she called out, “Go get Mumma's lipstick.”
"I have to do this," Rita lisped. She held out the jar. Another crack, a boom like thunder. Joline crying, baby held high. Rita running jar rolling minnow spilling into running water. Iris sliding down, down, trying to grab her mother’s hand. Warren pulling her back. Iris grabbing Rita, the sad minnow flopping, the jar rolling. Joline’s face a silent act of weeping. Disappearing beneath the ice. Stillness, confusion. The shock of living upon her. Joline held her breath, until she must let go, surrendering to water and all she is not. The baby slippery as birth leaving in a cloud. A traveler a river a murky glimpse. A face imprinted upon her soul. Swallowed by darkness.
It was Saturday afternoon, just hours after Vera left Joline and the kids. This was supposed to be her day off. But she told Old Jimmo she would come in after she got the groceries to her sister. Jacket on over the meat apron, she was wrapping meat like there was no tomorrow. Piles of raw beef clattered down the line, a rattle of chains.
Owen and Frenchy were jabbering away over the saws. Vera could not make out what they were saying, but she yelled out to them anyway,
“Awe, shut up, Owen, you don’t know what the hell you’re talkin’ about,” knowing full well this would get something rolling, besides the meat.
Old Jimmo was taking a special order for a customer wanting ground lamb for her poodle.
“Come on, Jimmo,” Vera said through a mouthful of beef, “We ain’t got all day.”
“Hey, Vera,” said Jimmo, “Ain’t this your day off?” As if she did not know this already.
“Yours too, ain’t it, wiseass?”
“She’s the talk of the day,” Frenchy shouted over the noise of the saw.
“Who? Poodle Lady?”
“No, dumbass: that girl with all them kids.”
“If she’s got kids,” Vera replied, “she’s a goddamned woman.”
“Okay. A goddamned woman with four kids.”
“Who’s gonna take care of the kids?”
“Their father is, nitwit.”
“No-sah! Ain’t his mother-in-law comin’?”
“What’s he gonna’ do after she leaves?”
“Dance a jig.” The boys split a gut over this one.
“What the hell was she doin’ anyways?”
“She went through the ice. Holdin’ a goddamned baby.”
“Nobody in their roight moind would go out there onto that ice, so close to the dam.”
“What?” Vera said.
“Some girl who don’t know her ass from her elbow,” said Frenchy, “over in that trailer park t’other side of the bridge…”
“A goddamned woman,” said Owen.
Vera ran out the door still wearing the bloody apron.