If My Book: a winter night
If A Winter Night were a box of chocolates, the assortment would be heavy on syrupy fruit and nuts, because protagonist Angie finds that flavor palette divine. She fancies herself a disciplined aesthetic, dedicated to her job as a social worker, and living a simple, orderly life. In fact, she’s all over the place, falling in love at the drop of a hat, getting crushed, and drowning her sorrow in decadent snacks.
If A Winter Night were a bouquet, the flowers in the arrangement would be pink roses, white carnations, baby’s breath, and a thistle. Angie tells herself she’ll never walk down the aisle, yet can’t help wanting to. The thistle is her current love interest, Matt, who tests her at every turn. He’s not as honest as he might be, especially in the matter of a former girlfriend and his fondness for cocaine. As the roses and carnations in Angie’s bouquet wilt, the thistle in the vase stands tall and strong.
If A Winter Night were a famous painting, it would be Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. It’s always hard to tell if Angie is happy or not because she wears a mask of calm and quiet efficiency. The murky background behind her represents her doubts and misgivings, and the slight lift to her lips show us how hard she’s trying not to give in to despair.
If A Winter Night were a bottle of red wine, it would come from California, although New York State, where the story is placed, produces some good vintages. Angie has stuck close to home in her thirty-four years, and while she can’t see herself living anywhere else, her constant restlessness makes travel attractive. She craves a lovely bottle of merlot, not cabernet because merlot is heavier and richer, and offers a more intense flavor. Angie is intense, which is why Matt is drawn to her in the first place. If they ever make a go of it, and see a future together, she might exchange the bottle of Merlot for a bottle of champagne. Domestic champagne, again from California. French champagne would take her too far out of her comfort zone.
My Father Wanted Sons
My feminism began with my father, who wanted sons. Had I been one he’d have named me Paul after my mother’s father, or Bruce, after no one he knew. He must have liked the sound alone, the angry strength of it, harking back to a long-lost Scots-Irish ancestor with an oblique connection to Robert The Bruce.
His wanting sons over daughters didn’t make him unique. A man wants his name to go on. This was before women kept their maiden names, or joined their husband’s with a hyphen. Isn’t that an interesting word, “maiden?”
My father was surrounded by the second sex. He had two sisters, three if you include the one who died in infancy. He had two daughters. Too many females. There might not have been if he and my mother had stopped at one child. He would have been okay with that. He cherished my sister and treated her like a princess. This went to her head and stayed there. When I was born, six and a half years later, I was consigned to the dungeon of her heart.
While I was growing up both of my parents were adamant I do two things they wouldn’t have asked of a son: be attractive, and keep quiet. There were infinite lesser demands like being polite to guests, not talking back, not offering an opinion on anything unless asked. My father required all this of my sister, too, but when it came to talking, the way she ran on was no problem. She had manic tendencies and could get quite wound up about something. As long as she was cheerful he didn’t mind if she were occasionally vapid and shallow.
Not that he thought women should be stupid or silly. I don’t mean to suggest that. It’s simply while my father was highly intelligent he was also deeply insecure, and needed to be in the spotlight. His words had to be the most compelling and instructive, his voice always heeded and sought. Female voices, while sometimes fun and amusing, had smaller truths to tell.
Yet my father was a champion of women, too, and surprisingly modern in his rejection of traditional female roles. As a young professor at Cornell in the early 1950s, he threatened to resign when a colleague was told her teaching contract would not be renewed because she was pregnant. His position was ground-breaking. He was told his career was in jeopardy, yet he persisted. The colleague’s contract was renewed, and she went on to become a renowned scholar in her own right.
My mother had an academic career, too, which my father supported. He encouraged her to get her doctorate, on the grounds she was highly capable and talented. She said it was because he looked forward to the higher salary she’d earn. Either way, his support of her extended to the housework and he often ran the vacuum cleaner or washed dishes. Even the occasional load of laundry wasn’t beneath him.
His efforts might have made for a happy marriage if my mother hadn’t fallen out of love with him. I don’t know that she was ever in love with him. The letters they exchanged during their engagement show that his devotion to her was warm and deep. Her tone was always cool and formal, friendly, never passionate. She told me once she knew six months into the marriage she’d made a mistake. Rather than get out of it, she hung on. Later, she fell in love with someone else. Her feelings were not returned, and this added to her grief and depression. When my father finally figured out what was going on, he was crushed.
A year later, he left. He didn’t tell me good-bye but gave that chore to my mother. He didn’t go far, just up the road into an apartment where I visited him twice a week. They started divorce proceedings. My father wanted to marry a former student, also divorced, who’d moved back to town after her marriage fell apart. She was nothing like my mother. For one thing, she drank like a fish, while my mother was circumspect with alcohol. She was intelligent and somewhat cultured, but my mother could read six foreign languages, was fluent in French, and had a Ph.D. from Harvard. But the new wife, or wife-to-be, was exactly what my father wanted and needed — someone who adored him and looked up to him. It helped she was fourteen years younger, and overwhelmed by his academic stature and reputation among his colleagues.
My father infantilized her the way he always did my mother. Now, my mother often acted like an infant with her pouts and bad moods and taking to her bed to sulk. Wife number two wasn’t so much infantile as she was ridiculous. She was ridiculous because she was usually drunk. Infantilizing her somehow seemed fairer. And when I say infantilizing, I mean that my father disregarded her concerns, made them sound trivial, spoke down to her, exactly the way you would to a three-year-old child.
He did that to me, too. He thought I was stupid. The myth of my stupidity was something he and my sister worked hard to create and maintain. I needed to be stupid because it meant I deserved whatever contempt my sister chose to express. If you’re inherently a cruel person, you feel it’s okay to insult a stupid person and call them names. Our age difference also worked against me. My father would quiz us both, usually by posing a mathematical question. The first time he did this I was seven and my sister was fourteen. Her knowledge of numbers was naturally that much more advanced. Stumped and unable to answer, I was ridiculed. If you’re wondering where my mother was in all this, she was lying in bed with the shades drawn, wishing the man she was mooning after would leave his wife and carry her off.
Wife number two brought two children into my father’s second marriage, a boy and a girl. My father adored the boy and despised the girl. The boy was the elder, which helped. He had a learning disability of some kind. I don’t know, perhaps it was dyslexia. People weren’t very good at diagnosing those things back then — the late 1960s and early 1970s. In any case, I remember my father saying in astonishment he’d asked this boy to read an article in the paper and then summarize it for him. The boy, probably eleven or twelve at the time, read it just fine, or pretended to, but had no idea what it contained. The girl was a good reader, and pretty quick-witted, but she was at the bottom of the female totem pole, and any talents she possessed were invisible to my father.
Since my father and I no longer lived together and saw each other only at prescribed times, his attitude toward me became somewhat less harsh. I suspect that when he bothered to think about it, and compared me to the two children then under his new roof, I didn’t stack up so badly. I was an avid piano student, which he’d once been, too. He felt I was following in his footsteps with my passion for the keyboard. I was only interested in discovering for myself the joy of classical music, but he had to have it his way. Every milestone I passed in my development was compared to his, and because he’d been a prodigy — a word people don’t use much anymore — I always fell short since I wasn’t a prodigy, just a young person who worked very hard. He wasn’t unkind about this, or demeaning, which in time I found unusual, especially later, when I became a writer. It was then I learned along with once having wanted to be a concert pianist, my father wanted to be a writer, too. He couldn’t stand my effort in that field, or my ambition, or later my success. I’d go so far as to say he hated it.
Once, during one of our prescribed visits that were becoming increasingly difficult because we had so little to say to each other, we walked on the Cornell campus. It was at night, between winter and spring, and cold. There was slush on the ground and my shoes were thin. We moved fast. We turned onto a sidewalk, and my father told me to switch places with him so he could be on the outside. I asked why. He said when a man walked with a woman he always put himself on the outside so he could protect her from splashed puddles, or mud, or anything else that might come flying her way from the street. After a moment, he went on to say it wonderful to be a man, and much less wonderful to be a woman. I asked him to explain. A man was free to move about in the world however and whenever he wanted, he said, while a woman was much more circumscribed. She had to be careful. She was vulnerable to the predatory nature of men. He knew it wasn’t fair, but that there was nothing to be done about it. I had to accept the lesser status of my sex if I were to be happy.
Not long after this odd monologue my sister, casting about for a way forward asked his advice. What career could she choose that would guarantee her an interesting life, preferably one that involved regular travel? He told her to marry a professor.
Like most people, my father was complex and multi-faceted. He believed in chivalry and protecting women, yet had a deep respect for his female colleagues. He also respected my mother and feared her. He admired my sister but didn’t respect her. I think he came to respect me for things that had nothing to do with what I wanted or achieved, but for my general outlook on life. He said once he liked that I didn’t feel sorry for myself, that I didn’t see myself as a victim. I guess that’s true. What’s also true is that my father’s attitudes did much more to make me a feminist than my mother’s strength and professional success. Maybe if he’d wanted daughters I wouldn’t be a feminist. That’s a hard concept to reckon with, and it might not be true, but really, who knows?
Anne Leigh Parrish
Writer & Poet. Find me at anneleighparrish.com
Call Yourself a Writer
I recently took part in a virtual author event with two other women writers. Let me say how much I have come to appreciate the magic of Zoom video conferencing, aside from not having a paid account which meant getting dumped off the call after forty minutes. No problem, everyone, including the audience, was able to log back in. The three of us spoke about our work, read a short portion, talked some more, and took questions from the viewers.
Many of these questions were about craft—how we came up with our ideas on what to write about, for instance, or the different mindset an author might need to go from writing stories to writing novels. These are good, meaty questions and sparked a good, lively discussion. I love learning how another writer views her process. We all go about this differently.
One person asked if I ever suffered from imposter syndrome, meaning, I suppose, if I ever felt I wasn’t really a writer. My answer was not now, but at one point yes, I did.
The change came from within, not from without.
The world didn’t tell me I was a writer, I told myself.
But how this happened wasn’t so quick and easy.
As a child, I wanted to be a writer, but that ambition gave way to playing the piano. The dedication, an obsession really, to practice and perfect those pages of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, really helped me focus on fiction when that time came. And it came after college, after graduate school, in the middle of working at a job I deplored, answering the telephone for the local gas company. I wanted to write, and that was all there was to it. So I wrote or at least tried.
Early efforts are often clumsy and horrible, and mine were, too. The struggle with the page was one thing, the struggle with myself, or specifically how people viewed my endeavor, different and much worse.
I was asked a question from someone at my husband’s work-place party: “And what do you do?”
“Well, uh, I’m doing a little writing.”
A couple of years later, this exchange:
“What do you do?”
“Oh, what have you published?”
There followed a benign expression which said, “You poor, deluded girl.”
One day, I called myself a writer when someone asked what I was, or did, or how I spent my time. I still had to be honest on the subject of not being published. I later discussed with someone about when one became a “real” writer. Was it when they became published? Or published more than once? How many times did one have to be published to qualify? Did just saying you were a writer make you one?
We came to no meaningful conclusion, but I went on mulling these questions. I decided if I say I’m a writer, I am one, as long as I’m actually writing. I’ve met my share of poseurs, or wannabes, or wishful thinkers, people who love the idea of being a writer and don’t do the actual work of writing.
A few years later, I got a story published. Now I was a published writer! Still, some people said if I hadn’t published a book, I wasn’t quite “real.” This hurt. It bothered me a lot. Real writers put their short stories together into a collection and get that published, which I did, eventually. This was a great cause for celebration! Then I was told I had to write a novel. Okay, I was real, but I could be more real, right?
At some point, I was blessed with a moment of clarity when I asked myself, who gets to say? Who’s deciding who’s real and who isn’t and why does anyone care?
The writing life is made up of a small number of essential pieces. The writer, the publisher, the reader. A writer finds her publisher, and together they find readers. People who haven’t read you or who aren’t publishing can go jump in the lake. They don’t get to define what I’m doing or how, or to judge how successfully I’m doing it.
The idea of gender gradually crept into my line of sight. Did male authors go through this? Were they made to feel illegitimate if they weren’t published, or hadn’t published a full-length book? I’m guessing yes, they are, but not to the same degree because publishing is still a very male-dominated profession. That’s changing. Slowly. And with great effort. I’m an optimist when I say I think a day will come when men and women stand in the same room as writers.
My advice? If you write, call yourself a writer, and don’t let anyone tell you you’re not. Try to get published. If you’re getting rejected over and over, figure out why. Then try again. When you succeed, crack open the champagne. When the bottle’s empty, get back to work. Writing is a life-long commitment. There’s always another story, novel, poem, essay, or memoir to write. And rejoice in what you do. That matters most of all.
In the Beginning
My first short story was written on brown paper using a second-hand Underwood typewriter I picked up at antiques store. I felt so writerly, perched on my stool at my kitchen counter, banging away. My husband was studying for the bar exam and had trouble concentrating with the noise I made. Luckily for him, I wrote in spurts, lasting no more than fifteen minutes at a time. Then I’d get up and wander off, overwhelmed with doubt and a growing sense that I had no idea what I was trying to say and why it mattered.
I persisted. “Among The Bohemians” was an uneven, heartfelt ramble about a recent party we’d attended which read more like an essay than a piece of fiction. It was one long description, what my mentor at The Atlantic Monthly would later call “a how things are story.” Not much happened. The narrator, who looked and thought a great deal like me, stood at the window of the funky artist’s loft where her husband’s friend lived and gazed forlornly at the old carved buildings that characterize Seattle’s Pioneer Square. She concluded the buildings were inspiring and the company wasn’t. She felt like an outsider.
The friend’s husband was an artist, not a very good one, and his paintings hung everywhere. She/I wandered past them, trying to discover or impute meaning to the deep lines, sharp corners, and muted colors he favored.
The beginning of my writing life lasted a long time, even though I improved and was defter on the page. People came to life, said funny things, and were plausible. But they were stuck in a murky place where things seemed to float and hover just on the edge of meaning. It was only when doubt gave way to revelation, when the narrator’s understanding of her situation changed, or the reader’s understanding of it changed, did my stories resonate. This moment often came at the end.
Endings became key for me. I had to know how a story ended before I could write it. The beginning could be redone to fit that ending, and so could everything else. It’s what you leave the reader with that came to matter most, and I carried this belief into my novels and later my poems. How a reader experiences us is crucial. But even more important is how we’re remembered.
Maybe that’s my sixty-something self, talking back to my twenty-something self. What I’m certain of as a writer with decades under my belt is good craft comes from both skill and confidence. That’s the long version. The short version? Know what you want to say, then know when you’ve said it.
An Open Door
On Friday afternoons the mood in the typing pool was a gathering storm. Heads bent tensely over keyboards. Machines clacked away. High on the wall hung a big clock, like a cold sun above the room. As the hour hand moved toward five the atmosphere became electric. Miss Grett, running the show from behind her desk felt it too, though all she ever did was take a quick, furtive glance at herself in the small mirror she kept in her plain, sensible handbag.
Edith returned to the page she was working on.
August 20, 1948
My Dear Mr. Undersecretary,
As you know, in my capacity as Ambassador, I can only refer your request to the Belgian Counsel for Immigrant Affairs. It will be my pleasure to make such a referral. You may expect a response at the Counsel’s earliest convenience.
Dull, dull, dull! Week after week of typing requests for a conference room; or a list of those invited to a reception; or a summary of the latest report from the Belgian Board of Trade. The interesting subjects were off-limits to her, and to all the other girls in the room. Edith didn’t know much about their backgrounds other than that they were all college-educated, but she thought her work as a map-maker during the war would have allowed her to obtain the necessary security clearance to see more sensitive intercourse. Maybe the others had done their share of secret stuff, too, and were similarly denied. Who knew? Walter would say that wasn’t the kind of thing you could discuss.
In the two months she’d worked there she’d made no friends, probably because she didn’t want to talk about herself. There was always that phase of polite inquiry when you got to know someone, wasn’t there? She didn’t like answering personal questions, and could easily avoid them. Except at that inane luncheon last month. One of the typists had gotten engaged. Dora, it was. How did Edith end up sitting next to her? On her other side was Lillian, plain as a post, who looked cross every time she glanced at Edith because Edith was pretty, with dark hair and skin so pale Walter sometimes called her Snow White.
Lillian asked Edith if she had a fella. The reply stuck in her throat like a piece of stale bread. All Edith could do was shake her head. Lillian seemed pleased by her response, and by the big plate of spaghetti in front of her. After that, Edith steered clear. She assumed they thought her a snob, or neurotic, or in the grip of some devastating sorrow that made socializing too painful to bear. Who cared?
The hour came, and the storm broke. Typewriters fell silent; excited voices rose. Chairs were pushed out and then back in. Drawers opened and closed. Shoes smacked across the tile floor. There were no coats or jackets to pull on, no umbrellas to pull from the many stands positioned near the door. The weather was hot, sticky, and horrible, as only late summer in New York City can be, or so said Miss Grett, who didn’t complain much as a rule.
Edith removed her document and put it in the wooden box on her desk. You weren’t allowed to leave anything in your typewriter when you left for the day. She wished she’d had time to finish it, because she’d have to begin it again first thing on Monday. She was too distracted by the coming weekend, and the thing that always cast it down—another letter from Walter, which she was sure to find when she got home. She’d traveled quite a distance in herself, because of those letters. First, she dreaded getting them. Then if one didn’t come on the usual days, which were Tuesday and Friday, she worried. When his tone was neutral and pleasant she was glad. Lately, he sounded unhappy.
From several rows away came a chorus of female squeals. A blonde typist in a pale blue suit extended her left hand to display an engagement ring. Edith thought she must have just slipped it on because if it had been on her finger all day, the fuss that was being made now would have happened before. The girl looked happy. The girls around her looked happy, too, or was there some thin veil of jealousy in their eyes? Dora had gotten her share of hungry looks. Everyone wanted to get married. When it happened to someone you knew, and not to you, weren’t you a little frustrated? Edith didn’t know. She’d never felt that way.
On her way out she said, “Congratulations,” and got warm smiles from those who heard. In the hall, she passed the Belgian Ambassador’s office. The door was closed, and spirited classical music played on a phonograph inside, Beethoven’s third symphony if she had to guess. She’d only laid eyes on the man once or twice. She assumed that being assigned to his department she’d see him daily, but the only one who did was Miss Grett. Monsieur Parthon was pretty much what one would expect—middle-aged, plump, balding, and with a splendid handlebar mustache. He’d called her “Mademoiselle” and nodded as he went by. That was over a month before.
She stepped onto the sidewalk. The heat rose from the asphalt. Sweat collected on the back of her neck, just above the collar of her dress. The walk from the United Nations to the public library took her along East 42nd Street. In cool weather, it was only a matter of about fifteen minutes. Today it would be longer. At the intersection of Park Avenue and 42nd traffic was stopped in all directions. The traffic light was broken; the sidewalk thick was with people waiting to cross. A policeman blew his whistle and waved his arms. Some said it was a city’s noise that made your crazy and bolt for the quiet countryside; or the maddening nudge of the crowds; or the dirt that drove you into the washroom to rinse your hands the first chance you got, then at home to put your stockings right into the sink; even your handkerchief seemed to pick up soot, tucked away in your purse. For all that Edith loved New York, though she hadn’t at first. After Cambridge, it was like watching horses stampede and thinking all the time that you’d be crushed or caught up in a frenzy you couldn’t stop.
She got across and kept going until she climbed the stone steps of the library. She went to the Will Call desk where her two titles were waiting. Both The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn had gotten rave reviews. Walter said reviews shouldn’t be the reason one read a particular book, but how else could she know if it were worth her time?
She stood with her books and waited for the uptown bus in the shade of an office building. The bus was late. Every bus in New York City was always late. The subway was no better, but who’d take the subway this time of year? Finally, the bus lurched into view, and of course,, it was packed. She boarded and found a seat near the back vacated by a man who remembered at the last minute that he wanted to get off. He yelled to the driver and the driver yelled back, “Take it easy, Mac! How far can I go in this jam?”
Why hadn’t everyone left town for vacation? Walter wrote that Cambridge was still full of people because the summer term hadn’t let out yet. She supposed that Boston itself might be empty. Walter hadn’t said. He didn’t venture across the Charles.
As the bus rolled up Central Park West, traffic thinned. Edith got off on 86th Street and walked west, towards Riverside Drive and the apartment building where she lived with her Aunt Margaret.
Sure enough, there was a new letter from Walter in the box. Once read it would join the others in her dresser drawer. At the end of the month she would tie the bundle with a blue silk ribbon. After a while, if they piled up, she’d move them into an empty shoebox.
Edith walked up the two flights of stairs. The elevator had been out of order for three days now. The concierge was on vacation, and his nephew hard to reach, so the tenants complained to each other. Mrs. Braddock declared she simply could not manage the climb to her third-story apartment with her arthritis, though Edith had observed her doing it, with good energy and effort. Mr. Pole said it was the fault of the Russians. They were out to destroy the infrastructure of American cities. Edith found this laughable. The Russians had enough problems of their own. They’d come out of the war badly, much worse than the Americans had. People just needed something to be unhappy about, which was so silly, given that unhappiness came to us all, unbidden and cruel.
Aunt Margaret was out. She had a bridge club. She would return woozy from gin and full of good cheer. Her disposition was sunny unless her thoughts turned to her late husband, dead now eleven years. He keeled over at his desk, working late one night. He wasn’t found until the morning. Aunt Margaret thought he was stepping out on her, she’d had her suspicions for some time. She hated thinking about all the hours she spent, wishing him ill when he was already dead. She hoped his soul forgave her. She still tried to forgive herself.
Edith stood before the tall picture window in the living room and watched the summer light dance on the Hudson. Growing up in a lack-locked state made her fascinated by large bodies of water. She longed to travel abroad, sail for days on a huge, luxurious ocean liner, walk along cobblestone streets, hear violin music pour from open windows, drink rich wine, devour sweet cakes—these were her dreams and fantasies of Europe.
Edith went into the kitchen and removed two pork chops wrapped in brown paper from the refrigerator. It was her turn to cook. Aunt Margaret was scrupulous about doing her share in the kitchen. She’d had a full-time cook before the war, but since then good help had been so hard to find! She’d managed as best she could on her own, dining out a lot with friends, or in their homes, and later, when Edith moved in, she tried her hand at some simple dishes she’d made when she was first married. Edith wished she wouldn’t. Her meat was always tough, vegetables boiled to mash, and everything had too much salt. Edith suspected that Aunt Margaret’s heavy smoking made her taste buds crave the stimulation salt provided. She put the chops on a plate to bring them to room temperature. Some butter, flour, and chicken broth would make a nice gravy. There were peas she would shell. There were also two plump russet potatoes. She couldn’t decide if they should be mashed or baked and decided to bake them. She lit the oven.
Then she poured herself a glass of scotch from the bottle in the cabinet. She learned the habit of a nightly drink from Walter, who allowed himself two, sometimes more, depending on his day. He was often tense. Harvard Law school was demanding. On top of that, his admission on the GI Bill made him question his ability, as if somehow they’d made a mistake letting him in. Edith wished he had more confidence in himself. He was a bright, capable guy. Would he have been able to break so many Japanese codes, otherwise? And what of all those medals on his chest? They didn’t give those out to idiots.
She washed the potatoes and put them in the oven. Aunt Margaret would be home any minute. She probably wouldn’t be hungry, with all that liquor in her.
The telephone rang. It sat on a small table in the hall. Edith didn’t get up. She didn’t want to talk to anyone. It couldn’t be important, in any case. Bad news would have come in a telegram. The ringing stopped for a moment, then resumed.
Edith went to the phone and lifted the receiver.
“Is that you, dear?” Aunt Margaret asked as if anyone else would answer that number.
“I’m running late. An old friend of Laura’s dropped in and we’re going to play a few more hands.”
“What’s the matter? You sound funny.”
The sound of ice rattled in a glass.
“Well, I better get back. Don’t hold dinner for me,” Aunt Margaret said.
“I won’t. I’ll see you later.”
After she hung up, Edith turned off the stove and put the pork chops back in the refrigerator. She wasn’t hungry. The heat flattened her appetite. She’d lost almost ten pounds over the summer. She didn’t mind. She liked having a good waistline. She finished her drink, went into the living room, and turned on the radio. She sat down on the couch and slipped off her shoes. Energetic swing flowed from the speaker, and she was with Walter and their classmates, dancing to the rhythm of the band on the makeshift stage, the space hung with graduation banners, rejoicing in being young, alive, whole, all the while knowing that these conditions were transient. Since VJ day, everyone had been looking for a way back to the feel of those days, but those days were gone forever, replaced with the grim reality that peace was itself a tricky business and mighty hard to maintain, especially in a world where Little Boy and Fat Boy could fall from the sky and set the world on fire.
She was low for days, afterward. Newspaper photos were relentless. The world hadn’t been truly altered until that moment. She cried and begged to understand. Walter cited necessity.
“Necessity? Are you insane?” She’d come close to screaming.
He used his familiar tack—she spoke in ignorance, it was he who really knew the score. Seeing her color rise, he then said he admired her compassion. It was a beautiful trait in a woman and suggested the loving mother she would eventually become.
How could he talk of children, at a time like that? Who would bring children into this world?
He was dumbfounded.
“Every woman wants to be a mother,” he said.
He’d always sought to guide her, to instruct her. They fought bitterly once about this, and he admitted she knew her own mind.
Another time he said he wished she didn’t read so much. He wasn’t sure it was good for her. This, from a man who loved literature! She thought of the two titles she’d brought home, and how she would read late into the night and most of the weekend. Then she remembered Aunt Margaret had invited friends for tea on Saturday afternoon, a woman and her adult son. Oh, drat! Entertaining strangers was the last thing Edith wanted to do. Poor Aunt Margaret thought herself an excellent judge of character and was certain Edith would enjoy this young man’s company. He was quite charming, Aunt Margaret had assured her. His mother and Aunt Margaret went way back. They served on relief committees together in the Thirties and later turned their energies to the war effort. Edith wondered if she could invent a good excuse, perhaps fake a blinding headache? She used to do that with Walter until her sense of duty got the better of her.
The music changed. She envied it. To become something else in an instant—poof!
She was getting drunk.
“Too bad about that,” she said.
The light dropped, and she turned her head to take in the river. Its surface undulated so beautifully, she was filled with sorrow. Or was it remorse?
What was Walter doing right now? Researching some esoteric rule of property, no doubt. Zoning, easements, and rights-of-way. He was interning for a law professor. He’d jumped at the chance. The professor’s recommendation could very well land him his first job out of school.
Walter’s nose was too big, and his front teeth too crooked for braces to correct. But they saved him, those teeth. He wanted to join the Air Force, and the oxygen mask wouldn’t fit easily over his mouth. He was sensitive about his appearance, though he was a handsome man. It was his manner he should worry about, Edith thought. Sometimes at a party, he drank too much and dropped his g’s. His laugh was more like a bark. The oversized nose turned red. Someone once called him Rudolph, but he hadn’t heard. Once, he dropped a cracker on the carpet and she crushed it to crumbs with her shoe. Then she stood in one place until the room thinned.
The telephone rang again, then stopped.
Edith made herself a piece of toast and a fried egg. Walter loved her fried eggs but fretted about the amount of butter she used. He’d had bad skin as a teenager, and was leery of food he believed would clog his pores. Edith told him to wash his face twice a day. And to shower regularly. She said he smelled bad, so bad she urged to shave his underarms. It wasn’t a thing men did, he said. Well, perhaps a serious swimmer. Someone who competed, won medals.
Medal shmedal, she’d said. But he shaved them. Then he complained of how bad the itch was a few days afterward. She didn’t urge him to improve himself after that, though there were many times she might have. Like when he didn’t have a handkerchief during a bad spell of hay fever. She caught him wiping his nose on his sleeve and wanted to box his ears. Later she thought her response overly hostile. She bought him a set of handkerchiefs, washed, and ironed them. Yes, just as well as his mother would have.
Aunt Margaret came through the door calling “Yoo-hoo!”
“Laura’s daughter ran off with a Chinaman. Can you believe that?”
“I’d assume so.”
Aunt Margaret dropped down on the other end of the couch and patted her face with a lace handkerchief.
“It’s murder out there,” she said.
“Have you eaten?”
“Yes. I don’t think there are any Red Chinese in New York. Unless they’re with the UN,” Edith said.
“Oh, it’s probably all some nonsense. Laura had had a few.”
Aunt Margaret’s diamond bracelet caught the light. Her brooch was made of diamonds, too, in the shape of a peacock. Edith didn’t know why she wore such expensive things just to play bridge, but that was her way. One morning, just after Edith arrived, she threw an elegant satin coat over her nightgown to go down the lobby to get the paper before the bellman brought it up. Aunt Margaret liked to be noticed. Edith did, too. She was just no good at it.
She remembered the woman and son who were due tomorrow.
“I don’t think we have any fresh cream for your friends,” she said. Aunt Margaret looked blank. “The ones you invited to tea,” Edith added.
“Oh, that stupid milkman!”
“You didn’t write it on the order.”
“What did he deliver, then?”
“Well, we’ll break an egg in our tea and be very . . . oh, I don’t know. There must be some dreary country somewhere that’s a cherished custom.”
“Where eggs are in short supply, sadly.”
Aunt Margaret removed a gold case from her beaded clutch. She plucked out a cigarette from it, patted it against her opposite forearm, then lit it with a charming silver lighter decorated with the head of a dragon. Edith loved that lighter. Every time she saw it she wanted to start smoking again. Aunt Margaret inhaled deeply, gratefully, mindlessly. Her gloved hand (gloves in this heat!) reached carelessly for the heavy crystal ashtray on the marble-topped coffee table by her chair. She put the ashtray in her lap and kicked off her high heels.
“You’re a clever girl,” she told Edith.
“Yes, I am.”
“But not modest.”
“What good is modesty?”
“What good indeed?”
Edith loved bantering with Aunt Margaret. Her gaiety and frivolity made Cambridge seem like a dream. Sometimes it felt as if she’d never lived there, never had things go wrong, and would never want anything more than what she had just then.
Late that night, alone in her room, Edith read Walter’s letter. It closed differently from the others. Rather than All Best he wrote Darling, I implore you. The time has come for you to return to the marriage.
End of Excerpt
An Open Door is a highly engaging story of a young woman's struggle for autonomy and independence set in the late 1940s.
Synopsis (abbreviated): It’s 1948 and Edith Sloan is taking a break from her marriage of three years. Husband Walter is back in Cambridge, Massachusetts studying law at Harvard. Edith is staying with his aunt in New York City and working and the recently-established United Nations as a typist. While the work is dull, it lets her feel independent, the way she during the War when she was a mapmaker in Washington, D.C. Edith misses the purpose and focus of those days. Walter, who worked as a code-breaker for Naval Intelligence, is glad to put that time behind them.
Edith earned her Master’s Degree from Harvard in American poetry and then applied to continue in the Doctoral program. Although he endorsed her application at first, her acceptance put Walter on edge. He’s been spotted as a young man with a bright future, one a certain kind of wife can bring about. He then discourages her from going further with her academic career. Angry and hurt, Edith heads to New York.
Outside of work, Edith lives a quiet life full of books. She loves to read. Her Aunt Margaret is vivacious and loves to have people around. She invites a good friend and her son for tea. The tea party turns into a cocktail party. Edith and the son, Philip, hit it off and instantly become more than friends. Panicked, Edith sees that if she stays away from Walter, she’s going to end up in big trouble, so she packs up after a glorious summer on her own and goes home.
Walter is delighted to have her back, but his delight fades as his studies consume him. Edith does her part as the dutiful wife, and hosts a small party for his friends, during the course of which it become clear that Walter wasn’t exactly lonely in her absence. Soon after they are invited for Thanksgiving dinner at the home of a student Walter met in the campus bookstore, Henry McCormick. Henry is a British peer giving America a try. He’s brought his wife, Mary, along. Mary’s not having as much fun abroad as she hoped.
Edith and Mary strike up a friendship when Edith tells her she’s been offered a job at a small local bookstore, a job Walter doesn’t want her to have. They visit the store and learn that the owner has taken ill and needs a buyer, not a new employee. Mary and Henry are well-off, and Mary suggests that she and Edith buy the store and run it.
The deal goes forward, Edith takes control, and Mary quickly loses interest in the enterprise she suggested. That’s fine with Edith. She enjoys being in charge. She arranges to meet with a poet who has approached her about reading her work at one of the store’s author events. She invites Henry to go with her, though she’s a bit uncomfortable with the fact that Henry has previously expressed a polite romantic interest in her.
They meet the poet, then convene to discuss her, the store, and many other things. Edith finds Henry good company and very easy to talk to. He shares the news that Mary has decided to return to England, ostensibly to care for her war-wounded brother, but in fact to leave Henry and their less-than-happy marriage.
Edith receives a telegram from her mother saying that her father is ill and to come home to Illinois at once. Edith has no love for her father but goes anyway. His cruelty to her when she was young has made her concern for his welfare minimal. But she cares for her mother and wants to offer support.
Her mother announces a life-change that Edith accepts. Back in Cambridge, she learns that Walter was involved with the wife of a colleague during the time she was away in New York. When she confronts Walter, he admits everything but says the affair was over months before. He begs Edith not to leave him. Though tempted to be candid about her own infidelities, Edith keeps quiet.
Henry’s wife Mary decides to return to England on the pretense of wanting to care for her shell-shocked brother. In truth, her marriage to Henry is failing. Edith, Henry, and Walter attend a party at the home of the woman he slept with despite Edith telling Walter she thinks it’s a very bad idea. Edith observes Walter and his paramour first-hand and realizes that they are still having an affair. Even worse, it becomes clear that the woman’s husband knows all about it.
Edith leaves Walter and accepts Henry’s invitation to occupy one of his spare rooms. He invites her to stay on permanently, but not force a sexual relationship. Edith realizes she’s comfortable with him. He’s kind and considerate and lets her spend her time as she pleases. Edith realizes she is open to the idea of a romantic relationship and looks forward to whatever the future holds.
Title: An Open Door, a novel by Anne Leigh Parrish
Genre: Literary Fiction, Women's Fiction, Historical Fiction, Upmarket Fiction
Age Range: 18 and over
Word Count: Approximately 70,000 words
Author Bio: Anne Leigh Parrish has three new titles coming soon from Unsolicited Press: What Nell Dreams, a novella & stories in November 2020; A Winter Night, a novel coming March 2021; and The Moon Won’t Be Dared, a poetry collection due late in October 2021. Previous titles are: Maggie’s Ruse; The Amendment; Women Within; By the Wayside; What Is Found, What Is Lost; Our Love Could Light The World; and All The Roads That Lead From Home.
Putting It Out There: Some Words of Encouragement for the Aspiring Writer
Writing is a private affair. One mind, one hand holding a pen, or two hands hovering over a keyboard. It’s almost always carried out alone. And when the pages are written, then what? This is a key question because it defines a crucial divide between writers who write for publication and writers who write just for themselves.
Writing for yourself is fine. We all write for ourselves first, really. If we don’t love our words, no one else will, either. There’s nothing wrong with being your own unique audience. Maybe you’re not ready to share. Maybe you want to keep what you’re writing all to yourself because it’s more comfortable—and more freeing—like keeping a diary where you can say whatever you want without fear of rebuke.
But if you want to write better, you’ve got to let someone else read you.
The question is, who?
There’s Aunt Marge, who loved your earliest attempts. But please, if you share with her, don’t rely too much on her opinion. The woman might make the best pineapple upside-down cake in the Tri-State area, but as a literary critic, she probably leaves something to be desired. She’ll tell you you’re brilliant because she adores you, and while that might leave you feeling all warm and fuzzy, it’s not what you need.
There’s your writing group if you’re in one. These are probably your peers, assuming you’re all at more or less the same level of experience. They’ve been trying to wrestle their own words around, so have some idea of what’s what. But they may not. They may respond viscerally and say something like “I don’t like your character, she’s too mean.” That may be true—your character could be a witch among witches, but it’s not a useful remark. If you hear that your pacing is too slow, or things wrap up a little too neatly, that’s helpful. If each person in your group has a different issue with your story, it’s nearly impossible to focus on a way to improve it. However, if they home in on the same problem—a place where each lost the narrative thread, for instance—that’s worth listening to.
When is it time to put yourself in the hands of a stranger? When you’re serious about getting published. It’s a big hurdle, and a lot of writers get stuck on it. You can’t believe the excuses I’ve heard from people who don’t want to send their work out. “The system is rigged.” “With thousands of submissions, mine will never make it.” “Editors don’t really read everything that comes their way.” What these statements all boil down to is a fear of being rejected. Writers hear “No” more than most people in most other professions. And yes, you should think of writing as a profession because that’s exactly what it is. It’s not easy to screw up your courage and launch your file into the ether, but there’s no other way to get your story in front of a reader you’ve never met. Editors will often give you valuable feedback about why your story didn’t make the cut, and if that happens, take their words to heart. Remember that they read a lot of work, and can tell good from bad. Look at your pages through their lens. This is how you learn.
Now, what about sending to a contest? A unique hurdle there is the entry fee. A lot of writers resent being asked to pay it, but consider this: most publications operate on a shoe-string, and every dollar helps. If you don’t feel charitable, you need to think about a press’s bottom line, how they make ends meet, and so on. Many of them are run by volunteers with day jobs. Are a few dollars really so much to ask? Some contests require as much as twenty-five dollars or even more, and I agree, that’s steep. If you can’t swing it, then don’t. But if you can, you’re contributing to a good cause. And what’s in it for you? Well, obviously you could win, and that’s always lovely. But if you don’t win first place, you might be included on a list of Honorable Mentions or Finalists and you can feel you’ve achieved something important. Kudos count in writing, just as in anything, and so do bragging rights. It’s nice to remember these favorable results when that inevitable sense of discouragement sets in.
What this all comes down to is that I hope you’ll think of your writing as something to share, especially now when we’re all isolating and staying home as much as possible. Art connects us and brings us together. Do your best work, be brave, and hit “Send.”
Book Publishing - A Few Things I’ve Learned
In the fall of 1985 I sat down at an ancient typewriter and called myself a writer. I wrote short stories, one after another, and nine years later published my first one. Eventually I collected the best of them, and this became my 2011 title, All The Roads That Lead From Home. My seventh book, a novel entitled Maggie’s Ruse, was just released by Unsolicited Press. Between those two books a lot of things happened, and I went up a steep and often difficult learning curve.
Here are some of things I learned.
It’s difficult to get a book into the world. The huge effort of writing it aside, a book needs good editing. Finding mistakes is hard, and it takes many sets of eyes. It also needs a stellar cover design and a pleasing interior layout. The people who make this happen are crucial. No book comes into being without them.
Books move slowly. The time between the acceptance email or letter, if one is old school, and holding the galley or ARC (Advanced Reading Copy) in one’s hand can be months, a year, or even longer, depending on the other books your publisher already in the queue. You have to be patient with the both the submission process, and waiting for next steps. You may find that not seeing your manuscript for a while means you react to it differently. Did you really mean to say that, and in that way? Yes, you did. Trust your work.
A story collection has an arc, just as a novel does, but isn’t as complex as a novel from a writing/creation standpoint. Other authors may disagree, and that’s their right. My book publishing journey began with two short story collections, and then, after a lot of dithering and hand-wringing, a novel. Writing a novel became necessary when I realized I wanted more room to roam, to really dig into someone’s heart and soul, and take the long view of things. It’s said that in a short story, a character is revealed, and that in a novel, a character develops. I’ve found this to be true, and directly related to how much space I’m able to give someone on the page.
Getting people interested in your book is a lot harder than you think. Marketing is its own world, and it’s not easy. You can spend a lot of money on advertising and placement and still sell only a few copies. A good, well-connected publicist really helps get the word out. It take a while to learn where to invest your promotion dollar, and you need to be savvy about what’s a good investment and what isn’t. For what it’s worth, I think Instagram is great platform for promoting books. People talking about your book, next to a beautiful photograph of it, can be awfully persuasive for people looking for their next read.
Readers land on your pages with their own set of expectations. If you book disappoints them, they’ll say so, and not always nicely. Reading is a skill just the way writing is, and sometimes readers let their preconceived ideas about stories get in the way. A good reader will suspend her personal paradigm and dive in with an open mind. These are the readers you want, not the ones who wish you’d written a different book that they would have liked better.
Writing evolves, and so does book publishing. Nothing stays the same for long, whether at the writer’s desk, or your publisher’s planning session. Despite what one hears about the decline of brick and mortal bookstores, independent book sellers—and publishers—are alive and well. People in this country read a lot, and there’s always healthy demand for new and well-written titles. Meeting that demand, and finding an edge, keeps the whole thing moving forward. That said, I always urge writers to write from the heart, and not into the marketplace. A beautiful story, beautifully told, will always find a home.
By The Wayside
She’s a woman who discards anything which causes sorrow or blocks her path. A man she cares for does both, and she leaves him. She takes only what she really values, an old set of books, a few china plates of her mother’s, an abstract painting she’d found in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She abhors clutter, both physical and spiritual. She has friends with children, husbands, and houses full of junk, plastic bins, cardboard boxes, old newspapers in piles on the porch, unraked leaves on the walk, and all the time they complain about the mess and the chaos, the failure to effect order, the misuse of their time, and though their company is amusing for an evening, she is always glad—relieved—to return to her own modest place that’s clean, stripped down to its essentials.
One clear night, she dreams of her brother standing in a field. The field is unknown, but she recognizes the distant tree, with its unique twist and sagging branch. That tree stood across the road from their home until a strong wind sent a severed branch onto a power line. Men came and cut down the rest of the tree. In her dream, the tree returns and the brother comes to celebrate the miracle.
In the morning, she learns that her brother had died four days before. They hadn’t spoken for thirty years. His erratic behavior became a liability. Late-night rambling phone calls, borrowing money and never paying it back, always an undercurrent of resentment that she was functional and self-supporting while he was neither. After she refused his calls, she had random news of him through her parents. Both hinted at mental illness, trouble holding a job, a string of temporary girlfriends. Nothing was ever clearly stated or described. Truth was messy and took up space, and it, too, was winnowed. The parents are both dead now, the father’s second wife, who was never a real presence, is also. Only she remains.
A letter arrives from the man her brother had made his life with. He worked for a long time to put his childhood rage behind him. I believe he died happy, more or less.
Her return letter contains only two words: Why rage?
He felt like he’d been thrown away, the man replies.
In her dismay, she takes on a comforting chore: cleaning out her closet. There’s a blouse she hasn’t worn in the last year, also a pair of red shoes, and a photo album she doesn’t remember bringing from her last residence. On one page, her family stands in a row. They’re by a lake in autumn. The trees are shedding their leaves, and she wears a light little sweater with roses around the collar. It’s been so long she can’t even name the year, or her age, only that she was happy then, and her brother was, too. They were friends, allies in mischief, united against the growing misery of their parents, safe in their own world.
Her tears surprise her, because she is not a woman who cries. Not when her father left to lighten his load; or when her house was sold; or when her childhood memories disappeared in the back of a truck bound for the dump; or when she fled her only marriage after fifteen months; or when each man had served his time and went; or when she moved the first, fifth, or eleventh time; or when her mother died at home alone; or when her father fell down his basement stairs and never regained consciousness.
Only now, when she sees, as she will over and over, that sometimes—in fact more often than not—the heart is made weaker for leaving behind what once gave it joy.
“I Know You”
It’s slow, even for a Tuesday. The rain slicks sidewalks, streets, doorways, every corner of Olympia. The homeless shelter where they can, under bridges, in the parking lot behind the abandoned industrial park, protected by flimsy tarps, donated tents, anything that isn’t soaked or flooded. People scurry past the picture window, heads down, hands in pockets. No one carries an umbrella. Northwesterners can’t be bothered.
At the end of the bar George Thomas sits solidly on his favorite stool, watching the ballgame on the screen mounted to the wall. The volume on the television is off. The players stand poised, then move suddenly in response to the pitch, soundlessly, as if in a dream. At a four-top near the door the Banners hunch over their frothy mugs. They’re newlyweds, regulars, uneasy in each other’s company. Serenity asks if they need anything else, and the wife, Lisa, looks at her with pain in her eyes as her husband says they’re fine.
The Banners are a stellar example of why people shouldn’t marry. Once that ring goes on, it becomes a chain, Fidel says, which is why he and Serenity have lived together for twenty-six months with a clear understanding that no knot will be tied. He watches the game; Serenity polishes glasses that she’s removed from the dishwasher. The hard water leaves spots. She’s added that special liquid that’s designed to take care of them and never does. She’s told Fidel about it several times. He tells her the glassware is her department.
He’s a good bartender. He hasn’t been stumped by an order in a long time. The book he keeps under the counter was his father’s, who worked in one of the big hotels up in Seattle before he shot himself in the head. Fidel doesn’t talk about it, but Serenity knows Fidel’s mother made the man miserable. She wanted things he couldn’t give her, and in time, his sense of guilt lead him to pull the trigger.
Serenity’s tired. She works too hard. She cooks, cleans, manages their money, when they have any. They’re usually broke. The rent on the bar takes a huge chunk. Business has been bad for months. Last year, when her mother died, Fidel closed the place for two days. He said it was the right thing to do, but the lost revenue added to her grief.
The Banners go on their way. George Thomas has another beer. The baseball game continues. At the bottom of the seventh, three young women come through the door, shrieking, laughing, running their hands through their soaking hair. They’re dressed up, high heels, stockings, lots of jewelry. Maybe they’re students, but Serenity doesn’t think so. Students at the local college shun fashion, feminine trappings, no glitz and glam for them. Maybe they’re down from Seattle, though there’s much more to do up there.
They take a table. Fidel is out from behind the bar before Serenity can get there. He offers to hang up their coats. The blonde on the right give hers to him without a word; the brunette says the back of the chair is fine for her; the blonde on the left hands over her leather jacket with a smile the size of the Ritz.
Serenity thinks of her own hair, which is half blonde, half black. The die job is working its way down, her God-given raven shade replacing what came from a bottle. Fidel doesn’t like her with light hair. She doesn’t look like herself, he says. Because Fidel is handsome, he wants other people to be attractive, too. It bothers him when they’re not, especially women. He won’t have any trouble with the three at the table. It’s clear they know they’re good-looking. It’s almost as if they’re competing for who will win the pageant.
Left Blondie’s a shoe-in. Her sweater is tight, her breasts ample, her neck long and slim. The crucifix dangling from a thin gold chain only adds to the allure. Fidel is a lapsed Catholic, and used to tell tales of what Catholic girls are really like.
He takes their drink order, and scurries back to the bar. He’s amped, almost nervous, and splashes soda water down the front of his denim shirt. Serenity goes over to the table, and asks the girls for ID. They stare at her. She asks again. Wallets are exhumed, licenses slid out and handed over. Right Blondie is Cheryl, age twenty-two. Brunette is Megan, age twenty-four, and Left Blondie is Jill, age twenty-three. Serenity reads Jill’s last name.
“I know you,” she says. Jill stares at her sullenly, the brilliant smile gone.
“I don’t think so.”
“Your family lives on Division.”
“Who are you?”
“Nobody you’d know. But I knew your older sister, Lacey.”
Jill holds out her hand for her license. Serenity returns it, and the others, too.
Fidel appears, drinks on a tray, which he deposits with a flourish. The women laugh. Serenity doesn’t. Back at the bar, she says that’s Lacey Sandhurst’s baby sister over there.
“You remember. You worked on her car.”
“Oh, yeah. ’67 Mustang. Lived down the road. Saw me tinkering with my Chevy. Asked if I could help.” He wipes down the bar, leans into it hard.
“You never met her, did you?”
“I thought I ought to, you talked about her so much.”
“Just about the car.”
Lacey showed up at her door one night when Fidel was out with a friend, looking at a truck he wanted to buy. She played it cool, and asked if she could come in because their power’s out and she needed to use the phone. The square shape in the front pocket of her blue jeans looked a lot like a cell phone to Serenity. She let her in anyway. Lacey asked if Fidel were home. Serenity said no, he’d be back in a while. Lacey said to tell him she needed to talk to him, and he knew what it was about. Serenity said she’d be sure he got the message.
She never told him about the visit. They’d be watching TV, and his cell would buzz in his pocket. He’d look at the screen, and go into the other room to take the call. He’d say it was his friend with another truck he might look at, or wanting to borrow some tools. Once he said it was the bank calling back about the loan he’d applied for. It was after eight in the evening. Serenity said that banker was dedicated as hell. Not long after, the Mustang and Lacey were gone. The phone calls stopped. The loan fell through, he said, but Serenity has set up online access to their accounts. The loan came in and went to Lacey. Five thousand dollars. Just like that.
Serenity figures it was to get rid of a baby, not to have and raise it. Kids cost a lot more than five grand. She hopes she was wrong, because she doesn’t like the idea. People have a right to be born, don’t they? And to be happy? The Declaration of Independence even says so. And as for the liberty it also guarantees, boy, does Fidel take that one to heart.
Now here’s Jill, who looks so much like Lacey it’s driving Fidel nuts. Serenity bets he recognized her the minute she came through the door. Did she pick their bar because she knew Fidel worked there? That seems like a stretch. But Fidel is a man women go out of their way for.
Her mother warned her. “He’s got a roving eye,” she’d say. After she got sick, the comments were harsher. “All charm and no personality.” Her mother never got to know him, not the way Serenity knew him. And what she knows is that he loves her truly, but can’t stay true.
Women leave men like that for less. Women stay with them if there are children or money on the table, neither of which Serenity has.
George Thomas says it’s time to pack it in. He pays his tab, and meanders across the room in a slight zig-zag. He stops by the table where the women sit. He bids them a lovely evening, and makes for the door.
“God’s sure crying tonight,” he calls back over his shoulder. No one answers. He leaves.
At the bar, Fidel tells Serenity he has an idea. Something to boost revenue, bring people in, even on bad nights like this.
“Ladies Night,” he says. “You know, half-priced drinks for women.”
“So? If they come, the guys will, too.”
“Call it something else.”
“What’s wrong with you? I think it’s a great idea.”
“I don’t suppose that table had anything to do with it?”
“What, them? No. I’ve been thinking about it for a while.”
The three women order another round. Half an hour later, they want a third. They’re visibly tipsy. Jill has her eye on Fidel. She’s flushed. The ball game concludes. Looks like the Astros won. Fidel tells Serenity the ladies are too drunk to drive, and he’s going to call them a cab.
When he goes to the table to make his offer, they all groan, protest, giggle, and flirt. Jill says maybe he’s right, but she’s got her car a block over. She hands him they key. They all live near each other. He can drop her off last. One of her brothers can drive him home. Fidel confirms where she lives, and says he can walk, it’s only about a quarter mile. She says it’s raining. He says he doesn’t mind getting wet.
“You look like the cat who got the cream,” Serenity says when Fidel fills her in.
“Can you close up on your own?”
“I’ve done it before.”
He leans in for a quick kiss. She gives him her cheek.
“I won’t be late,” he says.
“Bet you will.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I know you.”
He doesn’t hear. He gets his jacket on, runs Jill’s credit card for the tab, hands it back, and helps them into their coats. They walk out, and head up the sidewalk, four across, arm-in-arm. Serenity stands at the door, watching them go. She turns the sign on the door from Open to Closed, and flips the latch. Before she lowers the blinds on the window she looks up at the sky, where the rain has stopped, the clouds have moved on, and a riot of stars are thrown in an ordered chaos, like wishes that will never come true.
What Nell Dreams
On Monday it’s about a horse. The eyes are remarkably kind, shy, even flirty under their thick veil of lashes. She looks at Nell from the side, sticking her large soft muzzle over the fence to nudge at her outstretched hand. That hand is empty—no sugar cube, apple, carrot, only the palm lines waiting for the mystic to decipher, dampened with sweat. The horse enjoys the salt of that sweat, and licks it all away with one leisurely pass of its velvety tongue. Nell swoons with delight. This is love, she thinks, this.
Tuesday, her sister beats her with a riding crop. Monday’s horse is hers. Nell is forbidden any contact. She is forbidden even to think of her. You are not supposed to be here, the sister says. You are a mistake. The crop is put down, and the sister uses her bare hands, instead. When she tires of her abuse, the sister sits, exhausted, pitiable, needing love and attention. She receives none. No punishment is given to the sister for her brutal act. In Nell’s dream world, she alone is punished.
Wednesday, the man she married fails her. He weeps with regret. His weakness becomes her strength, and she walks with him on her back through waving summer grass. His weight his great, yet lightens as she goes, until she can’t feel him at all, pressing into her, clutching her shoulders, and breathing on her neck. She meets a stream that flows joyously over smooth rocks, enhancing their gray color to a rich, dark blue. Nell is stunned by this sudden, unexpected beauty. When she turns her head to say, Look! Won’t you just look at this with me, she finds that he’s no longer there.
Thursday, the child she never had escapes from her womb in a rush of blood. The child is a boy with large blue eyes and a crooked grin. It wears a ring on its thumb engraved with stars. The stars are their point of origin, hers and the child’s, and she removes the ring to wear it herself. She needs the stars to remain close to her, now that her body no longer contains them, but without the starred ring, the child wails painfully, losing its beauty, robbing her of the pleasure it gave her only moments before, so she returns the ring. Now starless, and unmoored, it is she who weeps.
Friday, she makes passionate, almost violent love with a man she’s never met. She can’t see his face, not because it’s hidden, or there is no light, or her eyes are closed. She is too swept away by the energy of his almost painful thrusts that anything on which her gaze falls disappears. He continues his mounting rhythm until she has taken him all the way inside her, and there is nothing left of him beyond her. He is her blood, bone, and sinew. His flesh is hers. She wakes, bathed in sweat, with an ache in her teeth.
Saturday, she admires a tapestry hanging on a stone wall in a museum devoted exclusively to Medieval artifacts. She’s amused by her outfit, a white mini-dress and white vinyl boots, in such a somber, dignified place. The image on the tapestry is of a unicorn standing in a circular fence, clearly captured, though the fence is low enough to jump over easily enough. Maybe it doesn’t want to leave. Maybe it’s humoring its captors, playing along, letting them feel in control. There’s a look of whimsy in its woven eyes. As Nell leans in for a better look, the unicorn whispers, Touch my horn, I beg you. When Nell’s finger brushes the wool, a single thread come loose. She pulls and pulls, hand over hand, until the tapestry has unraveled into miles of red, gold, and green wool at her feet. She steps out of the pile, awed at her destruction. Thank you, comes a final whisper.
Sunday, flowers in her garden open in winter and snow falls in spring. The mid-day sky is littered with stars, and the sun burns at midnight. With this flouting of Time’s law, she is cast adrift, excited to the point of giddiness as she rises through the roof, floating over trees and the fields beyond, until the land below is new, dotted with figures tending the earth lovingly, patting soil with such gentle hands she can absorb their silky touch. Her flight continues until she knows she is about to lose her way entirely, that if she doesn’t not turn back now, she will never see home again. She pauses, hovering between past and future, savoring her freedom, wondering how she lived so long without it.