I first read this story in high school, and when I hit the sentence that I have highlighted, it stopped me in my tracks. The sound of that sentence in my head, how completely it transported me – sight, sound, smell, taste, feeling – I was THERE in that kitchen. I read it in Literary Cavalcade magazine, and it said on the page “A must for anyone who really cares about great writing.” I discovered, that day, that I was one of those anyones.
I present the story here as a holiday gift. Enjoy. To hear Truman Capote himself read this aloud (abridged, alas), click here for This American Life. It starts at around 21:00.
Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago. Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town. A great black stove is its main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it. Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar.
A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but, due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable—not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. “Oh my,” she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, “it’s fruitcake weather!”
The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven; she is sixty-something, We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together—well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other’s best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880’s, when she was still a child. She is still a child.
“I knew it before I got out of bed,” she says, turning away from the window with a purposeful excitement in her eyes. “The courthouse bell sounded so cold and clear. And there were no birds singing; they’ve gone to warmer country, yes indeed. Oh, Buddy, stop stuffing biscuit and fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat. We’ve thirty cakes to bake.”
It’s always the same: a morning arrives in November, and my friend, as though officially inaugurating the Christmas time of year that exhilarates her imagination and fuels the blaze of her heart, announces: “It’s fruitcake weather! Fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat.”
The hat is found, a straw cartwheel corsaged with velvet roses out-of-doors has faded: it once belonged to a more fashionable relative. Together, we guide our buggy, a dilapidated baby carriage, out to the garden and into a grove of pecan trees. The buggy is mine; that is, it was bought for me when I was born. It is made of wicker, rather unraveled, and the wheels wobble like a drunkard’s legs. But it is a faithful object; springtimes, we take it to the woods and fill it with flowers, herbs, wild fern for our porch pots; in the summer, we pile it with picnic paraphernalia and sugar-cane fishing poles and roll it down to the edge of a creek; it has its winter uses, too: as a truck for hauling firewood from the yard to the kitchen, as a warm bed for Queenie, our tough little orange and white rat terrier who has survived distemper and two rattlesnake bites. Queenie is trotting beside it now.
Three hours later we are back in the kitchen hulling a heaping buggyload of windfall pecans. Our backs hurt from gathering them: how hard they were to find (the main crop having been shaken off the trees and sold by the orchard’s owners, who are not us) among the concealing leaves, the frosted, deceiving grass. Caarackle! A cheery crunch, scraps of miniature thunder sound as the shells collapse and the golden mound of sweet oily ivory meat mounts in the milk-glass bowl. Queenie begs to taste, and now and again my friend sneaks her a mite, though insisting we deprive ourselves. “We mustn’t, Buddy. If we start, we won’t stop. And there’s scarcely enough as there is. For thirty cakes.” The kitchen is growing dark. Dusk turns the window into a mirror: our reflections mingle with the rising moon as we work by the fireside in the firelight. At last, when the moon is quite high, we toss the final hull into the fire and, with joined sighs, watch it catch flame. The buggy is empty, the bowl is brimful.
We eat our supper (cold biscuits, bacon, blackberry jam) and discuss tomorrow. Tomorrow the kind of work I like best begins: buying. Cherries and citron, ginger and vanilla and canned Hawaiian pine-apple, rinds and raisins and walnuts and whiskey and oh, so much flour, butter, so many eggs, spices, flavorings: why, we’ll need a pony to pull the buggy home.
But before these purchases can be made, there is the question of money. Neither of us has any. Except for skin-flint sums persons in the house occasionally provide (a dime is considered very big money); or what we earn ourselves from various activities: holding rummage sales, selling buckets of hand-picked blackberries, jars of home-made jam and apple jelly and peach preserves, rounding up flowers for funerals and weddings. Once we won seventy-ninth prize, five dollars, in a national football contest. Not that we know a fool thing about football. It’s just that we enter any contest we hear about: at the moment our hopes are centered on the fifty-thousand-dollar Grand Prize being offered to name a new brand of coffee (we suggested “A.M.”; and, after some hesitation, for my friend thought it perhaps sacrilegious, the slogan “A.M.! Amen!”). To tell the truth, our only really profitable enterprise was the Fun and Freak Museum we conducted in a back-yard woodshed two summers ago. The Fun was a stereopticon with slide views of Washington and New York lent us by a relative who had been to those places (she was furious when she discovered why we’d borrowed it); the Freak was a three-legged biddy chicken hatched by one of our own hens. Every body hereabouts wanted to see that biddy: we charged grown ups a nickel, kids two cents. And took in a good twenty dollars before the museum shut down due to the decease of the main attraction.
But one way and another we do each year accumulate Christmas savings, a Fruitcake Fund. These moneys we keep hidden in an ancient bead purse under a loose board under the floor under a chamber pot under my friend’s bed. The purse is seldom removed from this safe location except to make a deposit or, as happens every Saturday, a withdrawal; for on Saturdays I am allowed ten cents to go to the picture show. My friend has never been to a picture show, nor does she intend to: “I’d rather hear you tell the story, Buddy. That way I can imagine it more. Besides, a person my age shouldn’t squander their eyes. When the Lord comes, let me see him clear.” In addition to never having seen a movie, she has never: eaten in a restaurant, traveled more than five miles from home, received or sent a telegram, read anything except funny papers and the Bible, worn cosmetics, cursed, wished someone harm, told a lie on purpose, let a hungry dog go hungry. Here are a few things she has done, does do: killed with a hoe the biggest rattlesnake ever seen in this county (sixteen rattles), dip snuff (secretly), tame hummingbirds (just try it) till they balance on her finger, tell ghost stories (we both believe in ghosts) so tingling they chill you in July, talk to herself, take walks in the rain, grow the prettiest japonicas in town, know the recipe for every sort of oldtime Indian cure, including a magical wart remover.
Now, with supper finished, we retire to the room in a faraway part of the house where my friend sleeps in a scrap-quilt-covered iron bed painted rose pink, her favorite color. Silently, wallowing in the pleasures of conspiracy, we take the bead purse from its secret place and spill its contents on the scrap quilt. Dollar bills, tightly rolled and green as May buds. Somber fifty-cent pieces, heavy enough to weight a dead man’s eyes. Lovely dimes, the liveliest coin, the one that really jingles. Nickels and quarters, worn smooth as creek pebbles. But mostly a hateful heap of bitter-odored pennies. Last summer others in the house contracted to pay us a penny for every twenty-five flies we killed. Oh, the carnage of August: the flies that flew to heaven! Yet it was not work in which we took pride. And, as we sit counting pennies, it is as though we were back tabulating dead flies. Neither of us has a head for figures; we count slowly, lose track, start again. According to her calculations, we have $12.73. According to mine, exactly $13. “I do hope you’re wrong, Buddy. We can’t mess around with thirteen. The cakes will fall. Or put somebody in the cemetery. Why, I wouldn’t dream of getting out of bed on the thirteenth.” This is true: she always spends thirteenths in bed. So, to be on the safe side, we subtract a penny and toss it out the window.
Of the ingredients that go into our fruitcakes, whiskey is the most expensive, as well as the hardest to obtain: State laws forbid its sale. But everybody knows you can buy a bottle from Mr. Haha Jones. And the next day, having completed our more prosaic shopping, we set out for Mr. Haha’s business address, a “sinful” (to quote public opinion) fish-fry and dancing cafe down by the river. We’ve been there before, and on the same errand; but in previous years our dealings have been with Haha’s wife, an iodine-dark Indian woman with brassy peroxided hair and a dead-tired disposition. Actually, we’ve never laid eyes on her husband, though we’ve heard that he’s an Indian too. A giant with razor scars across his cheeks. They call him Haha because he’s so gloomy, a man who never laughs. As we approach his cafe (a large log cabin festooned inside and out with chains of garish-gay naked light bulbs and standing by the river’s muddy edge under the shade of river trees where moss drifts through the branches like gray mist) our steps slow down. Even Queenie stops prancing and sticks close by. People have been murdered in Haha’s cafe. Cut to pieces. Hit on the head. There’s a case coming up in court next month. Naturally these goings-on happen at night when the colored lights cast crazy patterns and the Victrolah wails. In the daytime Haha’s is shabby and deserted. I knock at the door, Queenie barks, my friend calls: “Mrs. Haha, ma’am? Anyone to home?”
Footsteps. The door opens. Our hearts overturn. It’s Mr. Haha Jones himself! And he is a giant; he does have scars; he doesn’t smile. No, he glowers at us through Satan-tilted eyes and demands to know: “What you want with Haha?”
For a moment we are too paralyzed to tell. Presently my friend half-finds her voice, a whispery voice at best: “If you please, Mr. Haha, we’d like a quart of your finest whiskey.”
His eyes tilt more. Would you believe it? Haha is smiling! Laughing, too. “Which one of you is a drinkin’ man?”
“It’s for making fruitcakes, Mr. Haha. Cooking. ”
This sobers him. He frowns. “That’s no way to waste good whiskey.” Nevertheless, he retreats into the shadowed cafe and seconds later appears carrying a bottle of daisy-yellow unlabeled liquor. He demonstrates its sparkle in the sunlight and says: “Two dollars.”
We pay him with nickels and dimes and pennies. Suddenly, as he jangles the coins in his hand like a fistful of dice, his face softens. “Tell you what,” he proposes, pouring the money back into our bead purse, “just send me one of them fruitcakes instead.”
“Well,” my friend remarks on our way home, “there’s a lovely man. We’ll put an extra cup of raisins in his cake.”
The black stove, stoked with coal and firewood, glows like a lighted pumpkin. Eggbeaters whirl, spoons spin round in bowls of butter and sugar, vanilla sweetens the air, ginger spices it; melting, nose-tingling odors saturate the kitchen, suffuse the house, drift out to the world on puffs of chimney smoke. In four days our work is done. Thirty-one cakes, dampened with whiskey, bask on windowsills and shelves.
Who are they for?
Friends. Not necessarily neighbor friends: indeed, the larger share is intended for persons we’ve met maybe once, perhaps not at all. People who’ve struck our fancy. Like President Roosevelt. Like the Reverend and Mrs. J. C. Lucey, Baptist missionaries to Borneo who lectured here last winter. Or the little knife grinder who comes through town twice a year. Or Abner Packer, the driver of the six o’clock bus from Mobile, who exchanges waves with us every day as he passes in a dust-cloud whoosh. Or the young Wistons, a California couple whose car one afternoon broke down outside the house and who spent a pleasant hour chatting with us on the porch (young Mr. Wiston snapped our picture, the only one we’ve ever had taken). Is it because my friend is shy with everyone except strangers that these strangers, and merest acquaintances, seem to us our truest friends? I think yes. Also, the scrapbooks we keep of thank-you’s on White House stationery, time-to-time communications from California and Borneo, the knife grinder’s penny post cards, make us feel connected to eventful worlds beyond the kitchen with its view of a sky that stops.
Now a nude December fig branch grates against the window. The kitchen is empty, the cakes are gone; yesterday we carted the last of them to the post office, where the cost of stamps turned our purse inside out. We’re broke. That rather depresses me, but my friend insists on celebrating—with two inches of whiskey left in Haha’s bottle. Queenie has a spoonful in a bowl of coffee (she likes her coffee chicory-flavored and strong). The rest we divide between a pair of jelly glasses. We’re both quite awed at the prospect of drinking straight whiskey; the taste of it brings screwedup expressions and sour shudders. But by and by we begin to sing, the two of us singing different songs simultaneously. I don’t know the words to mine, just: Come on along, come on along, to the dark-town strutters’ ball. But I can dance: that’s what I mean to be, a tap dancer in the movies. My dancing shadow rollicks on the walls; our voices rock the chinaware; we giggle: as if unseen hands were tickling us. Queenie rolls on her back, her paws plow the air, something like a grin stretches her black lips. Inside myself, I feel warm and sparky as those crumbling logs, carefree as the wind in the chimney. My friend waltzes round the stove, the hem of her poor calico skirt pinched between her fingers as though it were a party dress: Show me the way to go home, she sings, her tennis shoes squeaking on the floor. Show me the way to go home.
Enter: two relatives. Very angry. Potent with eyes that scold, tongues that scald. Listen to what they have to say, the words tumbling together into a wrathful tune: “A child of seven! whiskey on his breath! are you out of your mind? feeding a child of seven! must be loony! road to ruination! remember Cousin Kate? Uncle Charlie? Uncle Charlie’s brother-inlaw? shame! scandal! humiliation! kneel, pray, beg the Lord!”
Queenie sneaks under the stove. My friend gazes at her shoes, her chin quivers, she lifts her skirt and blows her nose and runs to her room. Long after the town has gone to sleep and the house is silent except for the chimings of clocks and the sputter of fading fires, she is weeping into a pillow already as wet as a widow’s handkerchief.
“Don’t cry,” I say, sitting at the bottom of her bed and shivering despite my flannel nightgown that smells of last winter’s cough syrup, “Don’t cry,” I beg, teasing her toes, tickling her feet, “you’re too old for that.”
“It’s because,” she hiccups, “I am too old. Old and funny.”
“Not funny. Fun. More fun than anybody. Listen. If you don’t stop crying you’ll be so tired tomorrow we can’t go cut a tree.”
She straightens up. Queenie jumps on the bed (where Queenie is not allowed) to lick her cheeks. “I know where we’ll find real pretty trees, Buddy. And holly, too. With berries big as your eyes. It’s way off in the woods. Farther than we’ve ever been. Papa used to bring us Christmas trees from there: carry them on his shoulder. That’s fifty years ago. Well, now: I can’t wait for morning.”
Morning. Frozen rime lusters the grass; the sun, round as an orange and orange as hot-weather moons, balances on the horizon, burnishes the silvered winter woods. A wild turkey calls. A renegade hog grunts in the undergrowth. Soon, by the edge of knee-deep, rapid-running water, we have to abandon the buggy. Queenie wades the stream first, paddles across barking complaints at the swiftness of the current, the pneumonia-making coldness of it. We follow, holding our shoes and equipment (a hatchet, a burlap sack) above our heads. A mile more: of chastising thorns, burrs and briers that catch at our clothes; of rusty pine needles brilliant with gaudy fungus and molted feathers. Here, there, a flash, a flutter, an ecstasy of shrillings remind us that not all the birds have flown south. Always, the path unwinds through lemony sun pools and pitchblack vine tunnels. Another creek to cross: a disturbed armada of speckled trout froths the water round us, and frogs the size of plates practice belly flops; beaver workmen are building a dam. On the farther shore, Queenie shakes herself and trembles. My friend shivers, too: not with cold but enthusiasm. One of her hat’s ragged roses sheds a petal as she lifts her head and inhales the pine-heavy air. “We’re almost there; can you smell it, Buddy'” she says, as though we were approaching an ocean.
And, indeed, it is a kind of ocean. Scented acres of holiday trees, prickly-leafed holly. Red berries shiny as Chinese bells: black crows swoop upon them screaming. Having stuffed our burlap sacks with enough greenery and crimson to garland a dozen windows, we set about choosing a tree. “It should be,” muses my friend, “twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can’t steal the star.” The one we pick is twice as tall as me. A brave handsome brute that survives thirty hatchet strokes before it keels with a creaking rending cry. Lugging it like a kill, we commence the long trek out. Every few yards we abandon the struggle, sit down and pant. But we have the strength of triumphant huntsmen; that and the tree’s virile, icy perfume revive us, goad us on. Many compliments accompany our sunset return along the red clay road to town; but my friend is sly and noncommittal when passers-by praise the treasure perched in our buggy: what a fine tree, and where did it come from? “Yonderways,” she murmurs vaguely. Once a car stops, and the rich mill owner’s lazy wife leans out and whines: “Giveya two-bits” cash for that ol tree.” Ordinarily my friend is afraid of saying no; but on this occasion she promptly shakes her head: “We wouldn’t take a dollar.” The mill owner’s wife persists. “A dollar, my foot! Fifty cents. That’s my last offer. Goodness, woman, you can get another one.” In answer, my friend gently reflects: “I doubt it. There’s never two of anything.”
Home: Queenie slumps by the fire and sleeps till tomorrow, snoring loud as a human.
A trunk in the attic contains: a shoebox of ermine tails (off the opera cape of a curious lady who once rented a room in the house), coils of frazzled tinsel gone gold with age, one silver star, a brief rope of dilapidated, undoubtedly dangerous candylike light bulbs. Excellent decorations, as far as they go, which isn’t far enough: my friend wants our tree to blaze “like a Baptist window,” droop with weighty snows of ornament. But we can’t afford the made-in-Japan splendors at the five-and-dime. So we do what we’ve always done: sit for days at the kitchen table with scissors and crayons and stacks of colored paper. I make sketches and my friend cuts them out: lots of cats, fish too (because they’re easy to draw), some apples, some watermelons, a few winged angels devised from saved-up sheets of Hershey bar tin foil. We use safety pins to attach these creations to the tree; as a final touch, we sprinkle the branches with shredded cotton (picked in August for this purpose). My friend, surveying the effect, clasps her hands together. “Now honest, Buddy. Doesn’t it look good enough to eat!” Queenie tries to eat an angel.
After weaving and ribboning holly wreaths for all the front windows, our next project is the fashioning of family gifts. Tie-dye scarves for the ladies, for the men a homebrewed lemon and licorice and aspirin syrup to be taken “at the first Symptoms of a Cold and after Hunting.” But when it comes time for making each other’s gift, my friend and I separate to work secretly. I would like to buy her a pearl-handled knife, a radio, a whole pound of chocolate-covered cherries (we tasted some once, and she always swears: “1 could live on them, Buddy, Lord yes I could—and that’s not taking his name in vain”). Instead, I am building her a kite. She would like to give me a bicycle (she’s said so on several million occasions: “If only I could, Buddy. It’s bad enough in life to do without something you want; but confound it, what gets my goat is not being able to give somebody something you want them to have. Only one of these days I will, Buddy. Locate you a bike. Don’t ask how. Steal it, maybe”). Instead, I’m fairly certain that she is building me a kite—the same as last year and the year before: the year before that we exchanged slingshots. All of which is fine by me. For we are champion kite fliers who study the wind like sailors; my friend, more accomplished than I, can get a kite aloft when there isn’t enough breeze to carry clouds.
Christmas Eve afternoon we scrape together a nickel and go to the butcher’s to buy Queenie’s traditional gift, a good gnawable beef bone. The bone, wrapped in funny paper, is placed high in the tree near the silver star. Queenie knows it’s there. She squats at the foot of the tree staring up in a trance of greed: when bedtime arrives she refuses to budge. Her excitement is equaled by my own. I kick the covers and turn my pillow as though it were a scorching summer’s night. Somewhere a rooster crows: falsely, for the sun is still on the other side of the world.
“Buddy, are you awake!” It is my friend, calling from her room, which is next to mine; and an instant later she is sitting on my bed holding a candle. “Well, I can’t sleep a hoot,” she declares. “My mind’s jumping like a jack rabbit. Buddy, do you think Mrs. Roosevelt will serve our cake at dinner?” We huddle in the bed, and she squeezes my hand I-love-you. “Seems like your hand used to be so much smaller. I guess I hate to see you grow up. When you’re grown up, will we still be friends?” I say always. “But I feel so bad, Buddy. I wanted so bad to give you a bike. I tried to sell my cameo Papa gave me. Buddy”—she hesitates, as though embarrassed—”I made you another kite.” Then I confess that I made her one, too; and we laugh. The candle burns too short to hold. Out it goes, exposing the starlight, the stars spinning at the window like a visible caroling that slowly, slowly daybreak silences.
Possibly we doze; but the beginnings of dawn splash us like cold water: we’re up, wide-eyed and wandering while we wait for others to waken. Quite deliberately my friend drops a kettle on the kitchen floor. I tap-dance in front of closed doors. One by one the household emerges, looking as though they’d like to kill us both; but it’s Christmas, so they can’t. First, a gorgeous breakfast: just everything you can imagine—from flapjacks and fried squirrel to hominy grits and honey-in-the-comb. Which puts everyone in a good humor except my friend and me. Frankly, we’re so impatient to get at the presents we can’t eat a mouthful.
Well, I’m disappointed. Who wouldn’t be? With socks, a Sunday school shirt, some handkerchiefs, a hand-me-down sweater, and a year’s subscription to a religious magazine for children. The Little Shepherd. It makes me boil. It really does.
My friend has a better haul. A sack of Satsumas, that’s her best present. She is proudest, however, of a white wool shawl knitted by her married sister. But she says her favorite gift is the kite I built her. And it is very beautiful; though not as beautiful as the one she made me, which is blue and scattered with gold and green Good Conduct stars; moreover, my name is painted on it, “Buddy.”
“Buddy, the wind is blowing.”
The wind is blowing, and nothing will do till we’ve run to a Pasture below the house where Queenie has scooted to bury her bone (and where, a winter hence, Queenie will be buried, too). There, plunging through the healthy waist-high grass, we unreel our kites, feel them twitching at the string like sky fish as they swim into the wind. Satisfied, sun-warmed, we sprawl in the grass and peel Satsumas and watch our kites cavort. Soon I forget the socks and hand-me-down sweater. I’m as happy as if we’d already won the fifty-thousand-dollar Grand Prize in that coffee-naming contest.
“My, how foolish I am!” my friend cries, suddenly alert, like a woman remembering too late she has biscuits in the oven. “You know what I’ve always thought?” she asks in a tone of discovery and not smiling at me but a point beyond. “I’ve always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord. And I imagined that when he came it would be like looking at the Baptist window: pretty as colored glass with the sun pouring through, such a shine you don’t know it’s getting dark. And it’s been a comfort: to think of that shine taking away all the spooky feeling. But I’11 wager it never happens. I’11 wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself. That things as they are”—her hand circles in a gesture that gathers clouds and kites and grass and Queenie pawing earth over her bone—”just what they’ve always seen, was seeing Him. As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”
This is our last Christmas together.
Life separates us. Those who Know Best decide that I belong in a military school. And so follows a miserable succession of bugle-blowing prisons, grim reveille-ridden summer camps. I have a new home too. But it doesn’t count. Home is where my friend is, and there I never go.
And there she remains, puttering around the kitchen. Alone with Queenie. Then alone. (“Buddy dear,” she writes in her wild hard-to-read script, “yesterday Jim Macy’s horse kicked Queenie bad. Be thankful she didn’t feel much. I wrapped her in a Fine Linen sheet and rode her in the buggy down to Simpson’s pasture where she can be with all her Bones….”). For a few Novembers she continues to bake her fruitcakes single-handed; not as many, but some: and, of course, she always sends me “the best of the batch.” Also, in every letter she encloses a dime wadded in toilet paper: “See a picture show and write me the story.” But gradually in her letters she tends to confuse me with her other friend, the Buddy who died in the 1880’s; more and more, thirteenths are not the only days she stays in bed: a morning arrives in November, a leafless birdless coming of winter morning, when she cannot rouse herself to exclaim: “Oh my, it’s fruitcake weather! ”
And when that happens, I know it. A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken string. That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.
This is my son as Daddy Warbucks in Annie Jr. He was so good!
This completely made my day! My very lovely internet friend The Girl from the Ghetto (aka Gigi) gave me a Best Blog Award and I am enormously thankful! She and I have a lot in common and have even met and spent a few days together! She is a dear and one of the most vivacious, brave, strong women I have ever met.
Also, any blogger friend of Gigi’s is a blogger friend of mine, so check out the other blogs she honored:
“I’d like to honor the following bloggers who represent their own unique styles of blogging by passing this award along to them as well, as I enjoy their blogs dearly whenever I get a chance to read them.
- Writebrite, who mixes cool hobbies, life struggles, and yucky health stuff.
- TV Snark, who carried on the Gosselin torch when I gave up on carrying it.
- Hockeychic, an old friend and great blogger who talks about everything.
- Bingo, who corners the market on book chat and giveaways.
- Teeni, who not only creates the coolest things and writes about them, but who is also a great blog friend to all who know her.
- Jen 512, who has handled an international crisis very well and still manages to entertain us, despite now living in a foreign country.
- Loving the Tasmanian Devil, who writes beautifully about life raising children (and a husband) with Aspergers.”
Thanks, Gigi! Back at ya, girlfriend!
The Perpetual Male Adolescence Festival (aka Shotgun Season) is in full swing here in Central New York. Mighty Hawkeye has already gotten four does with his bow and one monster buck (update : two monster bucks) with his shotgun (update: and one doe with his muzzle-loader). At the risk of offending anyone, I feel I must rant.
I spent too many years teaching Lord of the Flies to sophomores. I love Lord of the Flies, can practically recite enormous portions by memory; it was the sophomores that got taxing. It’s been eleven years since I cracked the cover, but one scene always jumps to mind when hunting season rolls around again, and so I cracked.
Ralph and Simon have been valiantly attempting to build huts on the beach while Piggy allegedly watches the Littl’uns and avoids asthma. Jack is rapidly devolving into primitive hunting mode, and is intently thinking like a pig, plotting his kill:
“Ralph gazed bewildered at [Jack’s] rapt face.
‘-they get up high. High up and in the shade, resting during the heat, like cows at home-‘
‘I thought you saw a ship!’
‘We could steal up on one – paint our faces so they wouldn’t see – perhaps surround them and then-‘
Indignation took away Ralph’s control.
‘I was talking about smoke! Don’t you want to be rescued? All you can talk about is pig, pig, pig!’
‘But we want meat!’
‘And I work all day with nothing but Simon and you come back and don’t even notice the huts!’
‘I was working too-‘
‘But you like it!’ shouted Ralph. ‘You want to hunt! While I-‘
They faced each other on the bright beach, astonished at the rub of feeling.”
“Mo gazed bewildered at Husband’s rapt face.
‘-they get really careless when they’re in rut. If you sit really still in one place-‘
‘I thought we were talking about Eldest!’
‘You have to be downwind, and brush your teeth with baking soda, and wear Scent-lock … ‘
Indignation took away Mo’s control.
‘I was talking about the kids! Don’t you care about their future? All you can talk about is deer, deer, deer!’
‘But we need meat!’
‘And I work all day downtown, which you would hate, and you come back and don’t even notice the 20-year-old bathroom!’
‘I was working too-‘
‘But you like it!’ shouted Mo. ‘You want to hunt! While I-‘
They faced each other in the kitchen, astonished at the rub of feeling.”
And so it goes.
I did make it to 50,000 words and got a big “You win!” graphic from the National Novel-Writing Month team (me and over 32,000 other people). Ironically enough, my novel is set in a future year when the people of Central New York are literally fighting for survival, and a good hunter is worth his weight in lost college-planning conversations.
And really, I must admit that I love venison, Husband is a fabulous cook, he is an extraordinarily skilled hunter, he is working on the bathroom, and if I were able to live a turn-of-the-last-century life and stay home cooking and baking, I would feel very different about the whole thing.
And much as I revere William Golding and his brilliant analysis of human nature, according to his biographer John Carey, he was “a reclusive depressive who considered himself a ‘monster’, a victim of fears and phobias who battled against alcoholism, and a writer who trusted the imagination above all things.”
There are dangers in trusting the imagination above all things, as Husband is quick to tell me. Imagination alone might lead to a Nobel prize, but it doesn’t fill the freezer or keep the house warm. So, I tell myself, Back off, English geek! Once you publish a book and make some money at your hobby, you can sneer at your husband’s hobby, which does at least feed the family.
Meanwhile, me and my main man Ralph are going to shut up and keep working on the huts and keeping track of the Littl’uns.
A dear friend from college sent me an innocuous e-mail about a month ago, inviting me to participate in National Novel-Writing Month. This is a world-wide challenge to write an entire novel (50,000 words) from scratch during the month of November.
I had been lolling about in between writing projects and cursing my foul luck in the world of agents and magazine queries and such, so I thought “Why not? Write something brand new! Create!” (Picture me here jumping about swirling silk scarves in bright colors.) I had had a novel idea floating around in my head for a few years, and this seemed like a good enough reason to try it out.
So on the 1st of November I plunged right in. Luckily, the date coincided with Daylight Savings Time doing whatever it just did (ended? started? falled back? springed ahead?) AND it was a Sunday, so I had plenty of time to get out of bed, sit down at my laptop, poised and ready to go on the desk in my room, and start ripping. Oh, I was so very Eudora Welty writing next to my unmade bed. (Actually, I NEVER make my bed.)
Now, 50,000 words in 30 days is 1670 words per day. Since I was basically opening the spigot of an idea under a lot of pressure in my brain, the first 1670 words just spewed out. Was it good? No way. But was it started? Yes, ma’am. At least this concept was a’rollin’.
Somehow, although I am one of the least disciplined persons I know, this darn thing has become a mania for me. I get those 1670 words in per day come hell or high water. And I have actually gotten pretty swept up in this odd world I am creating. As of today, I have written over 28,500 words and even have somewhat of a plot (ever my weak link).
At the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing a few years ago, my beloved sister and I split up for one session and K heard a writer – I can’t remember who – who said that writing is like pottery in that you have to make the material first: writing the rough draft is like mixing the clay. Then you can take that stuff and actually make something from it. Similarly, I am mixing my clay together for a novel I have been thinking about for awhile.
Of course the Holy Spirit/Unconscious is one wily bugger. What comes popping up in my novel that originally had no direction? A middle-aged farm wife, marital issues, a corrupt world. And who seems to be working her way through these quandaries? Said middle-aged farm wife. Hmm.
I even got together with my inviter friend for a Nanowrimo write-in with a bunch of Ithacan Nanowrimo-ers. Actually, this was a tad embarrassing. The rest of the people who showed up were all college age or younger. One girl didn’t even have her driver’s license. They were very gracious, but I could see the thought cross their faces “What is this OLD person doing here? Does she have nothing else in her life that she has to write a novel in a month to amuse herself?” But Friend and I had a great visit and did parallel pecking at our keyboards, and a good time was had by all.
I am getting major inspiration from Sting’s new album If on a Winter’s Night available at your local Starbuck’s. The music is awesome and the picture of Sting in a black turtleneck sweater in his Tuscan retreat is also having an effect.
I dare not divulge anything about my book-thing because it is way too amorphous right now and so bizarre that if anyone from my town heard about it, I might lose my job for mental instability, but there is a cat (Jasper), and a love interest who is a combination of my Youngest and Thomas Merton, and there is a hazelnut and leprosy and now I have to go back to writing it. It’s calling to me.
To enjoy the utter coolness of NaNoWriMo, check their website www.nanowrimo.com and plan to do it next year. It is truly a hoot.
Thank you, Friend. I am afraid you have unleashed a monster …
This one’s going out to Twenty-First Century Housewife from Wife of the Tasmanian Devil:
At age thirty-five, some kind of genetic gear in Patrick ticked into place and set off a cascade of chemical changes that bound him to his room. Upon waking, the weight of his body and his obligations and of the lowering grey sky pressed him like a torture board covered with rocks. He would stand and feel unbalanced, couldn’t catch his breath, his heart raced and thumped in his chest, he would fall to one side. The only respite was sleep and that was hard to find.
He called in sick for one day, two, three, until finally his wife called the doctor and made an appointment. The medicine took weeks to build up, and in those three weeks, all that he was and all that he was to be were called in for trial. By all accounts he was a success. An accountant, department manager, a home owner, a husband, a dutiful son, an adoptive father. But under the smiling and successful surface a layer of pure marble protected him from the outside. Within that edifice was quiet, protection.
The chemicals swirling now within were corroding that façade from the inside out. He felt chinks missing here and there, on his left side under his arm, on a small patch of his skull, tiny interior pock marks and depressions in the armor that left him vulnerable. And the places became bigger each day, and the fear, coupled with the extraordinary weight of the pain, kept him behind closed doors with the curtains drawn.
In his grand home, he crawled to the farthest corner and hid there from the storm that brewed around him. It felt to him as if he was in a huge warehouse, and in the smallest corner of the smallest space, under storage containers and in behind dusty bins, he was a tiny dot in the scheme. No one could see him or find him here, and in the larger world, no one knew of the warehouse, much less his tiny dot within it.
In trembling and oppression he waited for relief. The doctor promised that he would feel a change, but it was slow to come. Loretta forced him each morning to take the tiny pill, which he did, then returned to his room and tried to sleep. Loretta tried to lure him out with yard tasks in the sun, a new grill, a hockey game for the computer. But nothing helped. When Loretta’s son Max came home from school, Pat would rouse himself enough to ask about his day and eat a little dinner, help him with homework, hug Julie.
Finally after three weeks, he felt the weight ease, and he returned to work after a weekend of feeling more like his old self. One afternoon weeks later, at his desk looking at inventory figures, he answered his phone.
“Pat Madden,” he said, still looking at his papers.
“Mr. Madden, this is Connie Bankert, principal at Bridgeport Middle School?”
“Yes. Is Max alright?”
“He’s fine, but there has been an issue and it is essential that I see you here before the end of the day. I have called your wife and she is on her way.”
“What’s the problem?” Pat put down his pen and pulled his date book in front of him.
“It appears that Max threatened an attack on the school and the police were here first thing this morning.”
“Oh, Lord,” Pat sighed. “I can be there at 2:00. Is that soon enough?”
“Yes. We have Max in in-school suspension at the moment.”
“OK. I will call Loretta and we’ll both be there.”
“Thank you, Mr. Madden. Your step-son is in a bit of trouble. I hope we can resolve this amicably.”
“Yes. Thank you.”
Pat hung up the phone and rested his head on his hands. He breathed deeply twice and then picked up the phone and dialed.
“Hello?” Loretta answered.
“Oh, God, Pat, what is this? What has he done? Someone called the police? I found the damn thing. It’s just a silly note in his notebook. It means nothing. He wouldn’t do that, would he?”
“No, Loretta, of course not. I’m sure it’s all a mistake. Listen, I can’t get out until 2 and I told Mrs. Bankert we’d be there then. Are you OK to drive?”
“Yes, of course. I’ll meet you out front. Are you OK? Any symptoms?”
“No, I feel OK. I’ll see you there.”
Two hours later Pat pulled up in front of the middle school. Loretta was there already waiting in her white Camaro. She got out when she saw Pat pull up behind her. As usual, she looked amazing, thin, stylish, well-dressed. She came to Pat and put her arms around him, rested her head on his shoulder.
“This feels like some kind of curse. First you, now Max. What’s next, your mom or dad?”
“OK, now, don’t overreact. Let’s just see what’s going on.”
In the office, Max sat in one of four chairs in a row. He looked up with fear when they walked in. His long hair fell across one eye and he flipped it out of his way.
“Hey, buddy,” Pat said, putting his hand on his shoulder.
Mrs. Bankert walked out and motioned Pat and Loretta into her office. Loretta smiled briefly at Max and went in behind Pat and sat down.
“Mr. And Mrs. Madden, thank you for coming in. Let me tell you what I know. At 8:00 this morning Sergeant Walroth of the Bridgeport Police department came here following up on a complaint that was called in. Apparently a girl in one of Max’s classes saw him making a map of the school and plotting out a plan for an attack. She got scared and told her mother that night and the mother called the police.”
“I have the notebook here,” Loretta interrupted. “I found it in his room where he had said it would be.” She opened the notebook on the table. There was a neatly drawn and labeled map of the middle school with various arrows labeled with weapons: tanks, B-52s, AK47s, etc.
“I find this rather disturbing,” Mrs. Bankert said.
Pat pulled the notebook over to him. He studied it carefully. “Tanks? B-52 bombers? Do you think this is serious? Where is a 12-year-old going to get military weaponry?”
“Mr. Madden, I am sure you want to defend your step-son, but after Columbine, we simply must take even a threat – ridiculous or not – as a possibility. I have children’s lives at stake here.”
Pat pushed back his chair and folded his arms across his chest. “Mrs. Bankert, how many years do you have left here? Two, before you retire with a big pension? Don’t you have better things to do than punish a kid who was obviously just being a kid?”
Loretta put her hand on Pat’s arm. “Pat,” she said. “Let’s just hear what Mrs. Bankert has in mind.”
The principal pulled out a piece of paper and passed it to them. It was labeled “Disciplinary Action.”
“Max will be out of school for three days and then in in-school suspension for two. Then he may return to school.”
“OK,” Loretta said quickly. “I think that’s perfectly reasonable, don’t you Pat?”
“And I might also suggest some counseling. Here is a form to take home in case you decide to utilize this service.”
Pat glared and stood up. “I will take my son home now,” he said. He walked out the door.
“Thank you, Mrs. Bankert, and I am sorry about the trouble,” Loretta said.
Pat dropped Max off at the house, after a quiet ride. Loretta followed and brought Max into the house with her arm around him. Pat returned to work. On his way home later, he stopped at his parents’ house. Peggy was not home yet, but Daniel stood with Pat in the kitchen as Pat paced back and forth and back and forth. Everything gathered in his mind, the doubt, the anxiety, the responsibilities, the long slow climb back to normal and now this compression. Daniel tried to talk to him, tried to calm him. Pat was shaking and his teeth were clenched. He could not speak, just periodically shouted meaningless sounds. Finally his hands clenched into fists and with all his might he punched the wall over the old highchair, knocking a hole in the sheetrock. Plaster dust flew everywhere. He tipped his head back and looked at the ceiling and he roared in frustration and grief. Daniel walked over and held his shaking body, held him still, just held him.
Pat knocked, and entered Max’s room when he heard a mumbled assent. Max lay on his bed face down. His music was playing and his books and notebooks were sprawled over his bed, spilling down onto the floor. Pat sat at the edge of his bed and considered Max’s long straggly hair.
“How are you doing, man?”
“I don’t know.”
“It was a joke wasn’t it.” Pat stated this. “Just a joke.”
“Yeah,” through the pillow. “Nobody was supposed to see that and anybody who knows me would know it was just a joke.”
“But Mrs. Bankert doesn’t know you. She might have thought you were serious.”
“I guess.” Still spoken into the pillow. “Is Mom mad?”
“She’s concerned, about you. She doesn’t want this to ruin your year. You were off to a good start.”
Pat had been helping Max every night with his math and science. It came hard to him, but Pat sat, patiently, and helped him with each problem while Loretta cooked Italian dishes – gnocchi and rigatoni and calzone. Pat loved her Italianness. She was so different than his sisters or cousins, so loud and bright and passionate.
“Are you mad? Are you going to leave? Are you going to go back into your room?”
“No, I got some help with that. I’m OK now, and as far as leaving, it would take a lot more than a psychotic plot to blow up Bridgeport Middle School to scare me off.”
Max turned his head slightly to check for the joke and smiled a little.
“I thought of doing that myself years ago.” Pat rubbed his hand across his thinning hair. “Max, I chose you, man. I chose to adopt you and Julie both – I didn’t have to. If this is tough, buddy, I’m going through it with you. If it hurts you, it’s going hurt me and your mom, too. But we’ll all hurt together.”
Max turned his face, and Pat could see he had been crying.
“I’m sorry, Pat. You’ve done a lot for me and I screwed up by doing something stupid.”
“Hey, we all do something stupid at some point. If this is the worst you do, count yourself lucky.”
“I bet you never did anything this stupid.”
“Yeah, I did.”
Max looked at him, waiting.
“I was once at a hockey game, and I was in the restroom, and this guy, this drunk guy, put out a cigarette on my arm. I got so mad that I punched him in the nose and broke it. And I didn’t stop then, I kept going and the police had to pull me off. Then I got arrested and my dad had to come and bail me out.”
“Whoa,” Max said sitting up. “Remind me not to mess with you.” Max wiped his hair off his face with his two hands. “I guess I didn’t do anything like that.”
“At least you only threatened to do something.”
Max looked down at his hands and picked at a hangnail.
“You want to get rid of that thing?” Pat asked.
Max looked up. “What thing?”
“Well, you’ll have to serve your suspensions, but I don’t think we need that map hanging around.”
Max’s eyes widened and then he raised his eyebrows and smiled tentatively.
Max and Pat walked past Loretta in the kitchen and out onto the patio. She looked and smiled but turned back to her stove. Julie was watching a show on TV. It was an early fall evening and still warm. A few leaves fell and drifted down from the big maples on the sides of their manicured lawn. Loretta grew roses, and a few late varieties were still in bloom. Fieldstones walled in the yard in which the grass was perfect, green and lush. Pat and Max took turns with the weekly mowing, Pat one time and Max the next.
Pat walked across the deck and opened the top of the grill. He pulled the map from his pocket and handed the map and matches to Max. Max opened the folded paper, looked at the map, and then laid it on the old coals. He opened the box, took out a match and closed the box again. He lit a match, and the flame hissed and then glowed steady. He held the flame to the edge of the paper and it caught. The paper blackened in a circle at the corner and then burst into orange and yellow, gathering strength until flames shot up into the increasing dusk. The paper curled and charred and shrunk and broke into cloth-like shreds. Pat and Max watched together as one soft piece floated up in the heat column, spiraled slowly, and soared away into the orange sky.
Night; a house in northern Scotland. When October gales blow in off the Atlantic, one thinks of sodden sheep huddled downwind and of oil cowboys on bucking North Sea rigs… even a large solid house like this one feels temporary tonight, like a hand cupped around a match. Flourishes of hail, like bird shot against the windows; a wuthering in the chimneys, the sound of an army of giants charging over the hilltops in the dark…
Bent double, Edo and Elizabeth creep through a stand of spindly larch and bilberry toward the pond where the geese are settling for the night. It is after four on a cold, clear afternoon, with the sun already behind the hills and a concentrated essence of leaf meal and wet earth rising headily at their footsteps – an elixir of autumn… Now from the corner of the grove, Edo and Elizabeth spy on two or three hundred geese in a crowd as thick and racuous as bathers on a city beach: preening, socializing, some pulling at sedges in the water of the murky little pond, others arriving from the sky in unraveling skeins, calling, wheeling, landing….
A tumult of wind and dogs greets them as they pull up ten minutes later to the house. Dervishes of leaves spin on the gravel … Both Elizabeth and Edo stare in surprise at the kitchen windows, where there is an unusual glow. It looks like something on fire, and for an instant Edo has the sensation of disaster – a conflagration not of this house, nothing so real, but a mirage of a burning city, a sign transplanted from a dream…
Elizabeth sees quite clearly what Nestor and his cousins have done and, with an odd sense of relief, starts to giggle. They’ve carved four pumpkins with horrible faces, put candles inside, and lined them up on the windowsills… “It’s Halloween,” she says, in a voice pitched a shade too high…[Edo] hurries inside, telling her to follow him.
Instead, Elizabeth lets the door close and lingers outside, looking at the glowing vegetable faces and feeling the cold wind shove her hair back from her forehead… she thinks of a Halloween in Dover when she was eight or nine and stood for a long time on the doorstep of her own house after her brothers and everyone else had gone inside. The two big elms leaned over the moon, and the jack-o’-lantern in the front window had a thick dribble of wax depending from its grin…She’d stood there feeling excitement and terror at the small, dark world she had created around herself simply by holding back.”
I went through a series of many years when I snatched The Best American Short Stories volumes off the New Books shelf at the library as soon as they arrived. Now, not so much. The 1993 edition came out in the midst of my Louise Erdrich jag, and since she was editor that year, I very much snagged and devoured. I was VERY struck by the short story “Winter Barley” by Andrea Lee, not so much for the plot but for the setting and the mood.
A week ago I made the very old librarian go down and retrieve 1993 for me from the basement (I offered to go down there myself, but that is where the very secret books are kept, like A House Like a Lotus by Madeleine L’Engle. What? because of the lesbianism?) and I reread this story and was again transported. This story has taken the place of Mr. McFadden’s Halloween* and The Halloween Tree in my repertoire of seasonal , transporting books. So above are my favorite chunks with some visuals to go along.
This story was originally published in The New Yorker and can be read (if you are a digital subscriber) here.Or you can get the 1993 edition of The Best American Short Stories. Here is the New Yorker’s abstract:
“Elizabeth, 30, a banker from Massachusetts who is stationed in Rome, and Edo, 60, an exiled prince from an Eastern European kingdom now extinct, have an affair at his home in Scotland. They meet at Easter. Elizabeth is invited to Scotland by Edo’s gay nephew, Nestor, her neighbor in Rome. Nestor doesn’t show up, having deliberately planned to throw the two of them together. Edo regales her with anecdotes about his world travels, and challenges her with his snobbery. They become lovers, although Elizabeth does not feel that she is in love with Edo. She is bored by his interest in water fowl; he has designed his estate to attract them. At Halloween, Nestor and two aristocratic friends arrive in Scotland. They and Edo try to offend Elizabeth with bawdy songs and stories. Edo is annoyed when the young men surprise him and Elizabeth by putting jack-o’-lanterns in the windows. Elizabeth has a childhood memory of Halloween in Dover, Massachusetts. Edo recalls an experience in Persia, when two of his friends, Persian princes, surprised him in the desert, bearing falcons.”
According to Andrea Lee’s Contributor’s Note in BASS, she was inspired by a line at the end of King Lear where Lear and Cordelia plan to escape together and enjoy “an improbable idyll” of father-daughter love. Lee wanted to replicate such an idyll in a modern context and so devised a “father-daughter” love affair. Why did an image of Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones just jump into my head?
Happy Halloween, everyone!
* Speaking of Rumer Godden, I have lately discovered her adult novels. (I was a huge fan of her middle grade books: Mr. McFadden’s Halloween, The Doll‘s House, The Story of Holly and Ivy, Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, The Kitchen Madonna). I am now enjoying In This House of Brede about Benedictine nuns. Next on my list is Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy. Both of these are part of the Loyola Classics series. More on that later. Check her out at left with her cats. The website for the Rumer Godden Literary Trust is wonderful.
For your listening pleasure while you are reading this post, here is the Count Basie Band (my dad’s favorite) playing Comin’ Through the Rye.
This is a photograph of my maternal grandmother, Mabel Ruth Kellick, in her teens. Whenever she showed me this photo, she would always say, “Mabel, coming through the rye.”
One of my three books waiting to get published (Who am I kidding? I am waiting for an agent to discover me and wrangle one of them into something salable) is called “Wonderful Plans of Old.” It starts with a family intervention to deal with the father’s alcoholism, and then goes backwards and forwards in time to explore the roots of this moment as well as the effects after it. When I was writing it, I was reading the Book of Isaiah, because it seemed to fit so well with the ideas of Desolation and Redemption I was exploring in the book, and each chapter title is taken from Isaiah. This chapter is from the very middle. Don’t worry: I will be tying all this seemingly random stuff together!
Among Fat Ones, Leanness
Kate was gone to China – we rarely heard from her. Patrick was home sometimes, six weeks at college followed by six weeks of working at home. And I was a high school senior: pianist, valedictorian, tennis team captain, and so very alone. My English class read The Catcher in the Rye that year, and like all adolescents I felt that Holden Caufield was my voice: repulsed by all the phoniness of adulthood and reluctant to move into the contradictions it seemed to mandate.
I rode the bus home from school, sitting in the front seat with a scarf over my nose and mouth to filter out the smoke – not all of it tobacco – that drifted from the back of the bus. Our driver was known to allow – even condone – smoking, so the bus was packed with students willing to walk ten blocks home from the wrong stop to smoke their pot in warmth for one mile. Roxie the bus driver would snap her gum, big ball earrings bobbling, and cackle to the back, “You smokin’ that horse shit back there?” She purposely aimed for the big bump halfway down Washburn Street and we would all fly into the air. Everyone but me laughed.
When I got dropped off, I walked across the street, got the spare key from the garage, and let myself in. No one was home. I’d drop my books at the kitchen table, take off my coat, and start the ritual. Holden had a malted and grilled cheese at the soda fountain. Without the equipment of a diner, I made do with a cheese sandwich on toast and a chocolate milkshake. Then I would line up twenty-five Ritz crackers – five by five – and slather them with peanut butter. Once I had eaten those, I checked into the ice cream – usually half of a half gallon would go next. Then Oreos: one column. By then my stomach felt tight, way beyond Holden and into a territory of loneliness Holden did not know, a territory where no one saw me, no one knew what I was doing, where no one seemed to notice that I was home, wanting someone to care about my day, wanting someone to notice that I had emotionally quit everything.
The upstairs bathroom was the place: away from anyone, close the door, turn on the fan, run the water, pretend I was a teenage girl obsessed with washing my face in case anyone got home early. No one knew – or really cared – what I was doing, even when I repeated this part of the ritual right after dinner. It really became quite easy. I would drink an enormous glass of water, and then it was amazing how easily it all came out – it didn’t even taste bad, just a watered down version of what I had just eaten. Three times and it was all out. I had had the feast – treated myself if no one else would – and still did not gain weight – as thin as a Junior Miss at least. So thin that my period stopped and Mom finally took me to an endocrinologist who took one look at me and said, “She’s too thin.”
I got thin, very thin, and I would lie in the hot June sun in the driveway on the lawn chair wearing only the Bloomies underwear and camisole I had bought on a class trip to New York City, the camisole rolled up to expose my browned stomach. I had no bikini and Mom wouldn’t allow one, but my blue-and-pink-striped cotton undies worked the same, as long as I had covered up by the time Mom got home. Our backyard was shaded by a huge maple, but there was a strip of strong sunlight along our driveway right next to the Gardiner Girls’ lilac bushes, which were on the other side of the waist-high chain link fence.
Mrs. Dixon came over one day and found me this way. I didn’t hear her approach since I had my Walkman on, slathering myself with coconut oil. “It must be nice to be so perfect,” she said, looking down her nose at me. She obviously disapproved of a teenage girl half dressed lying in view from Morton Avenue, or else she was jealous – a former beauty queen herself, believe it or not – whose figure with teenage children now was not what it had been.
I smiled in a knowing adolescent way and pulled my sunglasses back down over my eyes. If only boys would have the same response, but my obsession with my weight was mixed with a fear of sex, and the physiological effects of thinness had been to halt my hormones, leaving me desireless. I craved the jealousy of my female peers more than attraction by males. I wouldn’t have known what to do with a boyfriend if I had one.
The night of my first drink, I had gone to a senior dinner dance with a childhood pal, and there, in a funky bar in Buffalo, I had several white Russians. They tasted good, and I enjoyed, for a time, the way I warmed up, chatted with everyone, danced without inhibitions. But on the way home I felt bad, guilty, headachy, and when I crashed into my room that night, I planned the next morning to confess and gain absolution from my parents.
When I finally awoke, a beautiful, sunny spring day, my head ached, and I lumped down the stairs to the kitchen where my father was making a second pot of coffee. I slumped into a chair and drank the glass of orange juice he offered.
“How was the dance?”
“OK, I guess.”
“Did Jeremy behave?”
“Barely.” I finished the orange juice and poured some more.
“Where’s Mom?” I asked. “Aren’t you guys going to church?”
Dad sat down across from me and took a deep breath, sighed long.
“Mom’s upstairs in her room.”
I looked up. Something had happened.
“She had to have her stomach pumped last night.” I stopped. I had a vision of an ambulance in the driveway, reds lights flashing on the neighbors’ houses and on the Sansones’ garage wall. Mom on a gurney coming out the front door.
“She … wanted to show me what I looked like, so she drank an entire bottle of wine.”
I felt sick to my stomach. “Is she OK?”
“Yes. She’s going to be OK. She’s resting upstairs.”
“Can I go see her?”
I got up, holding my throbbing head, and went into the living room and up the stairs to the second floor. Across the hall I could see that the door of the sewing room where she had been sleeping of late on the spare bed was shut. I approached it quietly and peeked in through the crack. She had her eyes closed, but she heard me at the door and opened them.
“Hi, Moll. You can come in.”
I opened the door, which squeaked a little, and closed it behind me. The lovely soft sun had risen and came in a strip under the shades on the east window. I moved slowly to the bed and sat down on the edge.
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
“Kind of bad,” she whispered. “Did Dad tell you?”
“I’m sorry. On the night of your date.” She cleared her throat, which appeared to be a painful process. “How was it?”
“It was fine. Do you need anything?”
“Can I lie down with you?” She made room, turned over and faced the wall. I lay down on top of the blanket and spooned in next to her, like she used to do with me when I was scared by a nightmare, but our positions were reversed. I put my arm around her and just stayed. The shade glowed with the sunlight outside, but in her darkened room it felt more like sunset.
She was there through the next two weeks, up until my graduation. Dad called and told her boss that she was very sick. After school I would come home and lie with her. Then I would go back downstairs and sit at the table, doing my homework: Calculus, AP Bio, English, Psych – a breeze really, it just took time – and maybe I would play the piano, or practice my valedictory address, or I would take the car and drive to the school a few blocks away and practice my forehand, hitting my tennis ball against the big brick wall, over and over and over and over until blisters formed and broke open and my hands bled.
Did the music end? Here it is again.
I would not wish such a senior year on my worst enemy. Unfortunately, many students in high school DO have this kind of senior year. I have been teaching seniors now for eleven years, and I am convinced that it is one of the most stressful and difficult years of a kid’s life. It is like Kindergarten in reverse. Kindergarten means leaving the safety of home for the unknown of school; senior year involves leaving not only the now thoroughly known of school, but also leaving hometown, everyone known and loved for 18 years of life, and heading into the unknown of adult life.
Yes, some students are Homecoming King or Queen and apply early decision and are accepted at their first choice college, with a happily married mom and dad standing proudly behind them. But plenty of others are dealing with a parent’s illness or divorce or a major family problem, they have suffered socially throughout school and are glad to be leaving it behind, though they are simultaneously terrified of the blank slate before them. Sometimes no one has ever seen or understood their situation, and they have no support at all as they apply to colleges, all the while knowing that there is no money available at home to support this huge and expensive venture.
These kids need a catcher in the rye. They are technically adults, and yet many of them are running dangerously close to a cliff’s edge. Oddly enough, I have found myself in a job where I can BE the catcher in the rye for some of these kids. In my previous teacher job, I saw 75 kids a day for 40 minutes each: they were a blur. Because I now have a small class of students and see them for over two hours a day, my relationship with them is very intense and becomes very close. I know their lives and their dreams. Also, the programs that my colleagues and I run require students to leave the safety and familiarity of their home schools and take an early leap into independence and novelty. We often end up with the kids who are happy to be leaving their high schools behind.
Because I was also one of these types, I find myself with a rare ability to see their fears and their hurts, and I find myself so grateful to be in a position to help them, to the best of my ability. To quote Holden, my main man,
“I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”
Not crazy, Holden. I hear you, dude. Many of us have fallen off that cliff because no one was there to catch us. But anyone who has been over that cliff can see – preternaturally almost – those heading toward the edge. You can see it in their eyes, in their stance, in their words or their silence. If you personally survive the fall and pick yourself back up, you are in a unique position to see those little kids nearing the edge and to try to get in the way.
My heart aches for the Holdens and the Mollys of the world, and the many real teenagers I have seen undergo this process. My heart aches because it ached for me going through it. Holden sobs for Phoebe in her joy on the carousel, and it is true that innocence – either in its still pure form or lost through no fault of the child – is worth our sobbing over. The events that cause this are often beyond anyone’s control; who can stop cancer or death or any of a variety of things from raining on our parades? But I wish here to offer thanks that I have been given the opportunity to see and assuage what pain I can. God grant me the wisdom and the strength to do so.
It was the sweetest time of the year, she thought. Coming home from the gallery, over the hills through Edmeston and New Berlin, she had watched the sallow final green of the fields go ocher; she had seen the brush, under a silky darkening sky, turn sere. The sumac was brilliant with its final burn. The wind, though still warm with late September, had a touch to it of October’s chilled-wine autumn taste. And here she was in a bulky sweater and jeans and her boat shoes, walking behind the house and sipping at the wind…
The garden behind the house, a hundred by a hundred feet or so, still held the heat of the day. She kneeled in the friable soil that she’d worked, manured, nourished, rotary-tilled, and weeded for years, and she stayed that way, on hands and knees, looking into the low sun. The green mulching plastic she hated but used because it kept down the weeds now caught the sunlight, and the garden looked striped into rows of rich earth and rows of shiny green liquid. The dark tomato vines on their green bamboo stakes were drooping with the weight of plum tomatoes she hadn’t ye plucked. Most were dark red, and even going soft.
There were hundreds to take, and although she hadn’t planned to harvest tonight, the low orange sun, the sky that looked like a dark – an African – skin, and the smell of the vines, that luxuriance of greenness, made her take off her sweater and, with goose bumps pricking the flesh of her arms and her neck, tie its sleeves together and fill it with all the dry, firm tomatoes she could fit inside its upside-down torso…
There were days when the light and temperature made you want a sweater on not so much because you were chilly as because the day or evening looked like chill, suggested that being a little cold would be appropriate, and you wore something heavy, to acknowledge the world: Canada geese overhead, out of sight but hooting the shrill sad cries; the sky going one tone darker of blue; the roadside milkweed bobbing in a wind that would bring enough col within the week, she thought, to burst them into white silk hairs and crusty brown shell.
From Harry and Catherine by Frederick Busch
OK, I’ll admit that my adoration of this book is very far beyond normal. First, it is set RIGHT in my neck of the woods – I drive through Edmeston and New Berlin on a regular basis – so it makes my sometimes hum-drum life seem quite romantic. SECOND, I met Fred Busch, who was a professor at Colgate just to the north AND the founder of the Colgate Writers Workshop AND a phenomenal writer. His wife Judy was a mentor of mine when I first started teaching, and as Fred says in the dedication, This is Judy’s book. LAST, I think Catherine Hollander is just a kick-butt heroine, and I really jam to her artisty wood-chopping tomato-picking 40-something mother-of-boys Gestalt.
If you like this novel, there are two short stories that I know of that precede it, found in Domestic Particulars and Too Late American Boyhood Blues. (If anyone knows of other Harry and Catherine stories I missed, please let me know.) If you like books, read everything Fred Busch ever wrote because he was brilliant. I just ordered three used copies of his novel Sometimes I Live in the Country to foist onto my students from Sherburne because it is set in their school. I have read Harry and Catherine probably 15 times.