Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Chapter 7 / Witches

While I waited for work, on the off chance that some college an hour’s drive away would want me part-time, I said yes, I wanted to learn all about the workings of a dental office or yes, I would take a course in spreadsheets. 

But people didn’t trust me. They didn’t know what to make of me when I walked in the door, despite my sad story, which was something of a classic around here in any case: woman left stranded, needs income desperately. 

Finally the law office in Schuyler called on a Monday to ask me to come back the following Monday to meet one of the name partners. This for a job that paid $9 an hour for 20 hours a week. But I let myself dream. It would be nice to work in Schuyler, with its courthouse square and one decent restaurant. I couldn’t afford the restaurant, but maybe a lawyer had something else in mind. Maybe he needed a tax write-off and instead of gentleman farming or offshore oil drilling, he would fund a writer. It was no more preposterous than Jaime’s and my design office.

The local paper came in the mail that day and I made myself look at the classifieds again, even though I knew them practically by heart—

—and there was a new ad. The ad of my dreams. I stared at it for a long time, reading it twice. Every word. 

The newspaper itself needed a managing editor, someone who would also cover meetings and write news stories and features. That should be good for about 80 hours a week, but the pay was listed right there: $40,000. Forty thousand—more money than I had ever made in my life. 

I fired up the computer and started another resume. I had managed a chronically depressed man. I managed two insane dogs. For five years I had managed two homes, one here and one in the city, until we gave up the apartment. I could manage a couple of reporters. I left all of that out and emphasized instead my writing and editing experience. I dragged out my team spirit, bloody but unbowed. 

I put the letter and resume in an envelope and gave the dogs their watch-the-house biscuits and set out to drop off my application at the newspaper office in East Wynham, which, since we were centrally located in the middle of nowhere, was about 15 minutes away in the opposite direction from Schuyler. Then I stopped in the garage, thinking, and, confusing the dogs completely, came back inside to change my clothes. What if they decided to see me right away? Or what if they just happened to walk by the counter in the moment I was there? Every second counted. I found my suede skirt and a heather sweater that went with it. Happily, the weather was cool enough for tights—I didn’t want to go off the deep end here, with stockings—but warm enough to skip a coat, just to run into the office. 

Or to stand in the office literally six seconds, taking in one huge, two-storied room divided into three sections downstairs and with a balcony upstairs on the right that ran the length of the building, with three doors suggesting offices. 

“Thanks,” the tall, dark-haired woman at the front counter said kindly. “I’ll be sure the editor gets it.” 

“Thank you!” 

Low buzz of voices, people sitting at computers, daylight on either side of the building but not in the middle. I couldn’t pause any longer, so I left.

That night I called Jaime; she had worked there briefly as a typesetter. The production crew wasn’t a very happy group, she said, but maybe the reporters, with more interesting work, were more cheerful. Two sisters owned the paper, she reminded me—Tina, who was the editor, and Wendy, whose title was publisher. 

“You know what they’re called,” said Jaime. “The wicked witches of East Wynham.” 

“I have to try to get an interview.” 

“They’ll call you. They must be desperate, to offer so much money. Make sure you get it.”

Wendy called the next day. The witches, both of them, wanted to meet me at the diner between my house and their office for coffee on Thursday. I wondered why I didn’t just come to the office for an interview, but I would have met with them in the deep end of the high school swimming pool, if that’s what they had wanted, so I didn’t ask. 

At the diner, the witches—two slim, handsome women, whom I gauged late forties, early fifties—sat across from me in a booth.

“You have never worked as hard as you will work at the newspaper,” said Tina. 

I paused, my coffee cup at my lips. I have always been too literal. Did I have the job already? We hadn’t even been served our toasted muffins. And second—

“How do you know?” I said. 

“You won’t have time to write the opinion pieces you’ve sent in,” she said. 

“Or the fiction listed in your resumé,” said Wendy. “We have no lives but the paper, seven days a week.” 

“—You’re very tan,” I said, thinking of my pale, anxious self, seated across from these two robust blonds with awfully good tans for this time of year. 

“Well,” they said. Wendy played some golf. Tina had tried a tennis camp last month. They had their children, of course—Tina had two, Wendy three. I knew one of them was married to a lawyer, the other to a surgeon, but I could never remember which was which.

“You wrote a very good cover letter,” said Wendy. 

“And you write good presses releases,” said Tina. “That’s how we remembered you—from your releases for the library and the Central America group.” 

“You’ve also published every letter to the editor I ever wrote,” I said. 

“Well,” said Tina—a little sadly, I thought—“we publish every letter that comes in.”

“Almost,” said Wendy. 

They offered me a job, but not the one described in the ad. “We’ve decided to restructure slightly,” said Wendy. “Your title will be senior editor. One of the reporters is moving up to news editor, and the two of you will manage the reporters and the story flow, so that Tina and I can focus on long-term projects and planning. 

“The office is open every day except for major holidays,” she added proudly. 

“We rotate covering weekends,” Tina said pointedly.  

It was probably dreadful, but it didn’t sound impossible. I took a breath. “What’s the salary for the restructured position?” 

“Oh, it’s the same,” said Wendy. “Thirty thousand, cash.” 

“—The ad in the paper said forty thousand.” 

“That’s the total value of the package,” said Wendy, not missing a beat, “including benefits—health insurance, Social Security, paid vacation.” 

I gave Wendy and Tina the first of many long stares I would give them, individually and collectively, over the next couple of years, as I admired their gall, was infuriated by their boldfaced lie, protested mentally at the unfairness of it all, and felt helpless before it.  

“I have to bring my dogs to the office,” I said. 

Copyright © Debby Mayer

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Chapter 6 / Goats

I had lived alone before Ed, on even less than I earned now. But I didn’t have a house then, and a car, and two hungry dogs. 

“You could sell the house,” said my mother in one of her daily phone calls. “That would give you plenty of money to get back on your feet.” 

“—Where would I live?”

“—Well, you could stay in our house while we’re in Florida, then by spring you’d be able to find an apartment, or something.” 

Would it happen? Would I have my furniture in storage and drive around with a car full of suitcases? I swallowed back bile. “I thought widows weren’t supposed to make any changes for a year.” 

“That’s if you can afford it.” 

She was right. Make no changes for a year was starting to sound very middle class. But my renegotiated mortgage was probably comparable to any rent I’d pay for a habitable place around here, one that allowed dogs. On the other hand, I needed heating oil for the winter and Ed had totaled our “good” car, the one with only 60,000 miles on it; mine had 120. I made a round of calls to the people I freelanced for.

“Yes, the annual report is on schedule,” said John. “Look for it the first week in November.” 

October stretched ahead, vast and uncharted.

“I meant to call you,” said Lois. “That book’s been postponed. Why don’t you get back in touch”—she sighed—“after the first of the year. Maybe by then I’ll know the new schedule. Everything’s hell around here, waiting to see what happens with the election. How’re things with you?”

“—Ed died,” I said. I had to get used to telling people. “Car crash." 

“Oh my God. I’m so sorry.” 

“Thank you. Do you have anything else for me?”

“I’ll see. I’m so sorry. Maybe some proofreading. Oh, Annie, what are you going to do?”

It went on like that, as I called people and spoiled their day. I said yes to writing the chapters on African American history for a textbook, a project I knew I’d end up paying for—the fee would cover the writing but not the research—and yes to a young adult biography of Irving Berlin, even though the advance was stingy and the royalties probably wouldn’t come through. Everyone else said they would keep me in mind. 

I took a deep breath and tried not to panic. I had always been good at short-term solutions. I dug out the last couple of issues of the local newspaper, an invisible Ed scoffing at me: You’ll never find anything there. I shook open the paper and sharpened a red pencil. 

Three different restaurants needed wait staff, but I had been a waitress during college and hated it. Bartender, short order cook; not me. Plenty of social work positions for which I wasn’t remotely qualified; carpenter, cabinetmaker, nope, but here, Camphill Village needed an office assistant. I did not have a “minimum of one year’s experience in a secretarial position dealing with the public,” and I did have a momentary twinge about taking the job away from a young person who had a “high school diploma or GED,” but I needed a job too, so I circled the ad. 

And here, Blue Ribbon Chèvre had openings for full-time workers, either taking care of their 100 dairy goats or helping in the creamery. They even offered benefits—vacation, life and health insurance, a 401K. What luxury! Maybe I’d be outdoors sometimes, maybe I could wear jeans. I would write about the experience. “Call for an interview,” you bet. 

Under part-time, a dentist, a lawyer, and an insurance agency each needed office help. It wouldn’t pay enough, but I would apply anyway, just to get something going. 

I felt better than I had in days. I wrote myself a new resumé, leaving out my master’s degree in creative writing, remembering all the secretarial kinds of experience I had ever had, back through high school. I got into the theater aspect of the project, responding to each ad exactly as instructed, to show I was a team player who could follow instructions. The exception was the law office, which had given only its street address. I piled the dogs into the car and drove to Schuyler to take down the name of the firm at that address, to show that I was a team player who could do her own research. 

Back home I sat quietly for five minutes, thinking about goats and my experience in farm work. I had picked cotton for two weeks in Cuscutlan, on a volunteer brigade during the contra war, and I had done trail work in Wyoming, which mostly consisted of digging trenches and moving rocks. That was before we moved to the country and started digging our own trenches and moving our own rocks. And there was hiking, bicycling, canoeing. I called Blue Ribbon Chèvre. 

“Starting pay is minimum wage and you have to work some weekends,” said a woman who didn’t sound at all happy about spending her days with a hundred goats. “The health insurance starts after three months and the rest of the benefits after you’ve been with us for a year. Do you still want an interview?”

“Yes,” I said firmly in my role of job seeker. I could use the practice pitching myself.

“Come at 10 o’clock tomorrow.” 

The next morning I brought the dogs along for the ride and arrived at 9:30 so we could take a walk and check out the place. Three huge barns—red, white, and blue—were set well off the road and below it, down a little hill. I wondered if they had trouble with run-off, the way we did.

As I walked the dogs up the road, a herd of goats started out a door at the end of the blue barn into the yard. The goats didn’t trot so much as flow, a school of white, four-legged fish, all moving in the same direction, parallel to us. At least 50, they just keep coming out of that door, following the goat in front of them, or maybe following what they saw in the distance, a human with two small, curly-tailed goats who in turn were wildly excited, pulling at their leads, whining, wishing to play with or snack upon these bearded dogs. I put up with this for a minute, then turned around and started back to the car. The goats all turned around then too, the lead goats first, bumping into the later ones, who pushed into the last ones, until they had all gradually reoriented themselves to head in the opposite direction. “Cute but dumb,” I told the dogs. 

I parked the car exactly where I had been instructed, in the lot across from the blue barn. A heavyset woman strode out of it, shaking her head. 

“We can’t have dogs on the property.” 

“—They’ll stay in the car. I’ve locked it.” 

She shook her head again. “No. We can’t have it.” 

“I'm sorry. I’ll park up on the road.” 

“No. It’s still too close, and it’s dangerous to park there.”

“—What do you suggest I do?”

“That’s up to you. Dogs are not allowed on this property.” Her broad face, her whole body stood guard for the goats. 

“All right. I’ll park in the lot for the town hall down the road and walk back.” I looked at my watch. “I’ll still be on time.” 

She was appraising me, my brown corduroy pants, my one pair of tie shoes, brown suede, my red sweater and blue waterproof shell, all carefully chosen to combine respect for the interview with common sense and practicality. 

“Why do you want this job?”

She already disliked me, so I might as well be honest. “My husband died,” I said. “I need a job. I like animals.” 

“Ever done farm work?” 

“I picked cotton in 100-degree temperatures. I moved rocks in Wyoming in the rain. I take care of five acres. I’m strong, and I’m patient. I can learn goats.” 

“This isn’t a lark,” she said, and the word, lark, was so odd coming from her thin, unpainted lips that I knew she must have heard it from the Blue Ribbon bosses. “City people think goats are cute,” she said, “but they’re a business here.” 

“I’ve lived in Smokey Hollow for seven years. My husband died in an automobile accident. I need a job. That’s not going to change.” 

We have had this conversation eye to eye. Now her gaze flickered as she thought. “The one a couple of weeks ago? On the parkway?” 


“—Sorry.” She was single too. Her husband had left her, or he drank and she left him. “I’ll call you if we need you,” she said. 

“Thank you,” I said to the back of her faded red sweatshirt. 

“You don’t want that job,” Jaime said that afternoon. She had stopped by on her way to Schuyler, where she worked part-time as a graphic designer for the county’s one printing company. She had a harvest soup for me, filled with vegetables from her garden. 

“There was something appealing about goats, instead of paper,” I said. “If only I hadn’t brought the dogs, I would have at least got into the barn.” 

“They run that ad all the time. The turnover there is like a hundred percent a year. Maybe you should take a course in graphic design, on the computer. There’ll be enough business around here for the two of us—we could open a studio together!”

“No, Jaime. I know how things should read, or sound, but I never know how anything should look.” 

“Your house looks great.” 

“That was Ed.” I followed her eye to the framed T-shirt hanging by the staircase. “OK, I had his SoHo Weekly News T-shirt framed, but he knew where to hang it.” 

“And this is your fabric sculpture, Satin Manhattan, right?”

“A friend made it for us. But Ed realized these two fabric paintings from Cuscutlan went with it, and he hung the three of them as a group.” 

“Who hung this mirror?” She cast a critical eye at the Mexican pressed-tin mirror by the door, which Ed had hung vertically.  

“He did. . . . I always thought it should be horizontal.”  

“It should be.” She was taking it off the wall. “Got a hammer?” 

We rehung the mirror, horizontally, at just the right level for my face. Immediately the whole house felt tidier. 

“This must be how people feel after they’ve been to a chiropractor,” I said. 

“Exactly!” said Jaime. “Write that down. I gotta go.” 

 “Let me pay you something.” 

“Get a job.” She hugged me good-bye. “Then we’ll talk.” 

I went back to work on my latest idea, which was a mailing to all the colleges within a 50-mile radius of my house, pitching myself to their communications offices. There were a surprising number, if I went north as far as Albany; too many, really, and the writing of yet another resume, to show that I was the perfectly experienced staff member for an academic setting, the crispness of my best white paper underneath my best grade of printing, the confident hopefulness of my cover letters, made me unbearably tired. I should take a run, get the endorphins moving. Instead I found the dogs, curled like Cheerios on the bed, and wrapped myself around them. Jethro moved away, but Chloe stayed with me, as needy for shelter as I. 

It was dark when I woke, the dogs staring balefully at me from the floor, late for their walk, their dinner. Ed had always walked them at four, fed them at six, summer and winter. I was inadequate even to them. 

Copyright © Debby Mayer

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Chapter 5 / Desk

As far as I can tell, Ed kept every birthday card and Valentine that he had received for the last fifteen years. Dozens of them—every expression of love or affection, any remembrance or acknowledgment, from anyone. I’ve kept all the cards he gave me because each one is unique—beautifully made, with a special verse. But I keep few others. Looking at the cards I gave him, I repeatedly told him that I loved him. “I love you,” I wrote. “Know you are loved,” I wrote.  

Ed’s desk sits in the back room of the house, overlooking the garden and the meadow beyond. The desk is five feet wide by three feet deep, so it makes sense that the drawers would go all the way back, but I had never really thought about it: that you could stuff years of written memorabilia into them. But Ed the pack rat had got ahead on me on several fronts:

Stacks of magazines in the attic, created by Ed, the man who worried about fire. I recycle them immediately. 

Fifty-one pairs of socks in a drawer, two with the label still on them. Four black, eight blue, thirteen brown, twelve “other,” and fourteen sport. In the back of the sock drawer is $42.50 in fives and ones in a Ziploc baggy, and $100 in twenties, held together with a paper clip. I transfer this money to my T-shirt drawer.

Twenty-two wine bottle corks in the kitchen miscellany drawer. Most of them French, but one each Budapest, Geyser Peak, Julius Echter Heffe-Weissbier, anonymous. Did he think he would use them again? Was it a reference library? 

Fourteen shopping bag handles. I set out to keep a couple, then throw them all away. 

But the desk, the desk. My thinking is I’ll use it now, I’ll start a real business, the way Ed did, and this will be my action central, as it was his. But I had no idea what an archaeological dig this old wooden desk would be, the desk that he bought at an auction one evening, back in the day when auctions sold furniture we could use and afford. On the left side, instead of drawers, is a contraption, an inner table on a spring on which you can keep a typewriter; this allowed the inventor of this desk to store more papers on its surface, I guess, and it’s a fortunate invention because it means there are only three drawers, on the right side of the desk, into which Ed could pack stuff, along with the vast top of it. We bought the computer together, ostensibly for both of us, though Ed used it most of the time. And surrounded it with his piles of paper.   

I remind myself that my desk, upstairs, is something of a mess too, but I think my piles of paper go back only six weeks, not six months. Probably these papers are duplicates of what his clients have, but I should ask, be ready to mail things. “Maybe they’ll hire you,” my mother said on the phone from Key Biscayne, optimistic in her off-the-wall way. Ed’s clients would never hire me as Ed, but maybe if I’m helpful and well organized, I could pitch myself as a proofreader. 

I’m labeling stacks of paper, whom to call about what, when at the bottom of a pile of stuff at the back of the desk I find a color printout. It’s smeary—color is not the strong point of our printer—but it’s clearly a boy, a young boy, in the nude, facing the camera. 

Blond hair, brush cut, standing in the sun in the nude, full front, smeared, the colors haven’t come out well, there’s a lot of red, of blue. A thin boy, narrow chest, a boy, with a small prick, for peeing, not a teenager, younger than that, but not a little boy either, somewhere, somewhere in between, he stands there, staring at the camera, squinting into sun, smeared in color. He does not look comfortable; neither does he look surprised. 

I do not know him. I take in his blurry face, his squint, his lips. This is no one I recognize. 

I crumple the paper. I smooth it out again. I take it to the kitchen trash and look at it one more time before I tear it into tiny pieces. 

I go back to the desk. My eyes are tearing, my throat aches, but I touch every single sheet of paper on the desk, all over again. An hour passes. There is nothing else like it. 

What in the name of God was he thinking. We gave each other privacy. The picture lay on the desk. He counted on me not to look. He left it for me. He forgot it was there.

All those nice cards I received. “He called you ‘my Annie,’ wrote a physician on the EMT book. 

No one said he loathed me. 

I get up, stare out at the garden, the meadow. His Annie wasn’t enough. Is any of us ever enough? He would be mowing the meadow this month. He is gone. No discussion. No fight. 

One picture does not make a pattern. But he printed it out. The computer may hold secrets. Up to me to find them, delete them; no one, not Jaime or Kathleen or Dave, can help with this.

Right now, no more secrets. I am terrified of the computer. I would put it onto Ed's office chair, wheel it to the trash can in the garage, but I can’t do anything to it until I look into it. Instead, I clean off his bulletin board, with its public display of schedules, letters, a few mementos, like the faded fortune from a Chinese cookie: “Many pleasurable and memorable adventures are in store for you.” We always added “in bed” to make the fortune more interesting. I crumple the slip of paper. And then I remember—

I worked the table for our Central America solidarity group at the county fair this past Labor Day Weekend. Taking a break, walking around the fair, I passed the gypsy fortune-teller booth. I’d never had my fortune told, mostly because I was too much of a chicken, but that day I felt ready, curious. I sat down and the man looked at my left palm, but before he said anything he got a call on his portable phone and began a conversation with someone in San Diego. I waited, sitting across from him, but he continued to talk, with no sign that he would ever stop. Finally I put a couple of dollars on the table and got up. I’ll do it, I’ll do it! called a woman sitting in back of him, but I was annoyed, so I left. 

That evening I described my non-fortune to Ed. “He just kept talking,” I said, “as if I weren’t there.” 

“Maybe he saw something he didn’t want to tell you,” said Ed. 

Copyright © Debby Mayer