Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Chapter 10 / Thanks

“Do you want any help sorting Ed’s clothes?” Kathleen asked in November. 

Kathleen had stopped by with baked chicken and we got to talking about her running for state assembly. People still cooked for me, but now in return, I made donations to worthy causes. To my mind, Kathleen was a perfect candidate: wavy red hair, four kids (two adopted), and years of dues paid on the school board. With Clinton in office—he had even won our backwater—we should do something now, before he blew it. “I’ll put all my donations in an account toward your campaign,” I said. 

“Maybe I should try for town board first,” she said, and then, often the mother, she asked about Ed’s clothes. 

“No thanks,” I said. “I’ll wash them all and give them away next spring.” 

To rush his clothes out of the closet, as my mother had done after my father died, seemed peremptory. Plus, I liked seeing his collection of Hawaiian shirts hanging there; he had left so quickly, with only a brief kiss of good-bye, I liked the reminder.

But I knew what Kathleen meant. We were standing in Ed’s office, now my office, sort of, the back room with a sliding glass door that led to the screened porch. It was the only room in our house with any closets, so we kept our clothes there, even though we slept upstairs. The door on Ed’s closet didn’t close all the way, and the sight of a fuchsia orchid peeking out must have looked incongruous on this gray day. Not to mention that if I could take over his office, if I could figure out how to clean his computer and sell it, surely I could give away a couple of sweaters. Ed wasn’t missing. There was no chance he would limp into the house next spring, looking for his stuff. 

“I guess we could look at his winter clothes,” I said. “Give those away before it’s too late.”

“Exactly,” said Kathleen. “And if you’re not ready to give something away, you keep it. It’s allowed.”

It’s allowed. In fact, Ed had two-dozen sweaters and four fleece jackets. Dave, who long ago dubbed Ed a “clothes pony,” chose a sweater and a fleece jacket; I saved one of each for my brother and kept one of each for myself. The rest I gave to the thrift shop, wishing Godspeed to their softness and color, and discovering that I liked the idea of someone discovering them in time for Christmas, making a gift of them to someone else, or themselves. 

By moving Ed’s summer clothes to the attic, I suddenly had an empty closet. Such a marvel had never before been seen in any of our domiciles. I kept it vacant for a week. I dusted it and vacuumed it, and then I moved my clothes into it. In my former closet, I hung my two coats and three jackets. Next to them, I hung extra hangars, for company. A coat closet! Another first.

Lots of things were allowed. I had slept with the radio on until it was cold enough to close the windows against mysterious night sounds. But it was Ed who watched television to relax, not me; pitched high and fast, it made me jittery. So I wheeled the TV, on its stand, out of the living room and into a corner of the office, but that seemed silly, so I wheeled it out the front door, down the three steps, and into the car. Returning later from the thrift shop, I found the house somehow more peaceful. Less cluttered, calmer.  

I went into Ed’s office and looked at the room; on one side a window gave out on the deck; on the other side, the view was perennial gardens. Through the sliding glass door at the end, beyond the screened porch, I could see a day with the last of the golden fall light. Our neighbor Frank had kindly mowed the field. For all intents and purposes, my freelance career was over. Now a wage slave, I never had time for my own writing, despite all those juicy novel plot lines just waiting for me. I stared at this room and into the light, and I thought, it’s allowed. 

By the time my brother, Nick, and his wife, Liza, drove over from Boston for Thanksgiving, bringing Cornish game hens and all the trimmings, I had moved everything that I could by myself, exchanging the office for the bedroom. “I need help moving the bedroom furniture down here,” I said, “and bringing this office stuff upstairs.” 

“I don’t think we can do all that today,” said Nick. “We’ll come back.” 

“Sure we can,” said Liza, who loves a project. She set multiple timers in the kitchen, and we ran up and down the stairs. We managed my bureau, the mattress, dinner, and the dishes, but at eight o’clock we realized that we could not manage the wooden base of the bed, one of the many beautifully designed, impractical items Ed had left me. It weighed about 100 pounds and would probably have to be sawed in half. 

“Ed and Dave moved it up here,” I recalled belatedly, not adding that I had thought moving it down the stairs it would be easier. 

“Christmas isn’t that far away,” said Nick. “We’ll come over again and you can line up somebody to help me.” 

“What about your neighbors?” asked Liza. “It’s only eight o’clock and we have two pies.” 

So I called Nancy and Frank, who were in fact at loose ends by then, and they walked down the road. Frank, however, voted with Nick on the current unmanageability of the project. “I’ll call a couple of guys tomorrow,” said Frank, who earned a living as a master of many trades. “We’ll come over before you go to work on Saturday. I’m sorry it can’t be tomorrow,” he added sadly, looking at my tidy bed on the floor. “I couldn’t do that,” as if sleeping on the floor were something consigned to the young and reckless.  

Liz had the coffee and two pies—pumpkin and mince—ready. To my pleasure, Nancy and Frank sat around the table with us for an hour, and we wound up exchanging war stories of worst jobs we had ever had. Right then I was the winner by only a hair; Nancy, a cook at a nursing home, had to be at work at 5:30 the next morning, three hours ahead of my start time. 

“For me it was the war,” said Frank, standing at the sliding glass door onto the deck, smoking a cigarette and tapping the ash outdoors. “’Nam. Everything’s been easy since then.” 

“Nick served in Vietnam too,” said Liza, since my brother will seldom talk about it. 

“Oh yeah?” said Frank. “ROTC?” Rot-see. A word from college.

“No,” said Nick. “I enlisted in the Navy. Spent three years stateside, thought I might make it, but I didn’t. Went over as a quartermaster.” 

“He drove a little boat, like in Apocalypse Now,” said Liza.

“He knows what I mean, sweetie,” said Nick, and I could see that Frank—and Nancy—did, and that we had just gone up several notches in their eyes, no longer simply people who ran up and down the road in shiny long underwear. 

Liza brought humor back to the circle with her tales of working as a secretary for a man who once literally chased her around the desk, until she ran out the door. 

How I wanted to stop time right then, at the second when we all laughed. I wasn’t staring into the kitchen sink under the overhead light at 10 o’clock at night, my head full of numbers, thinking, I cannot sustain this life. Nick paid for my fuel oil, but he can’t buy me a new car, and how will I pay the property taxes? No matter what I do, I cannot keep this house, and apartments don’t want dogs, but she is all I have, I can’t give her up, around and around, until I wanted to cry out and instead went to bed and pulled the covers over my head. 

Tonight Liz had turned off the kitchen light. We sat around the circular table under honeyed fall light moved indoors, by lamp. Safe for the moment, the next tragedy held at bay, I gave thanks. 

Copyright © Debby Mayer

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Chapter 9 / Children

Back to the novel. Remember, this is fiction!

It’s a good crew, Wendy the Witch had said during my interview at the diner. Including production and distribution, she said, the newspaper employed 55 people.

And it was a good crew. About 20 of us were in the office at any given moment, most of us working downstairs, “on the floor.” Advertising had a home base on one side, production stretched across the other side, and editorial filled everything in between. Tina started every school tour of the office, for any age group, with advertising: “This is what supports the newspaper,” she would say. The all-female production team was a little prickly, afraid they were about to be dissed, but the ad guys were fun, and editorial talked to everybody. 

With the possible exception of the two upstairs. Tina the Terrorist—as she was known to all her staff and half the community—had a terrible temper and a garbage mouth, as my mother would say. She dissed the production crew weekly, she looked me in the eye and lied to me, she made enemies in a field in which networks were essential. But she worked like a maniac and more than once she was right about something.

I did work harder than ever. I had pulled all-nighters to finish freelance projects on deadline, but once I put the package out for Fed Ex, I could go to bed and sleep half the day. At the newspaper, our office day began at 8:30 a.m. and ended at 5 p.m., with a half-hour off for lunch—the maximum Wendy could legally extract from us. But she and Tina were there at 8:30 when I arrived and at 5 when I left, and they took a half-hour off for lunch. They got their weekends, but the rest of us rotated responsibilities, so that the office was open seven days a week. 

At least two week nights, 5 p.m. was just a dinner break before we all—Tina too—went out again to cover a 7 p.m. board meeting—town, school, zoning, planning, they went on and on, all of them wanting our presence, too many to oblige. Because I had “editor” in my title, I earned no overtime for the meetings, or mileage reimbursement, the way the reporters did, but neither, supposedly, did Tina.

The next day we wrote our stories and then Tina, Catherine, and I edited each other’s and reporters’ work, and everybody tackled the never-ending onslaught of press releases. 

Twice a week, on deadline days, Tina worked downstairs, and my first gift to my coworkers was to accept the desk nearest to her outpost. At 30, Catherine was moving up from reporter to editor, and she and I had been instructed to decide which of us would work where, between two available desks. “Would you mind taking that one, between Tina and me,” Catherine whispered. “Not at all,” I said, determined not to be afraid of where I sat. 

If Tina put up with my weekly mistakes, it was because I could write, I had a firm grasp of grammar, she didn’t have to tell me not to wear jeans to work, and, unlike her, I kept my emotions to myself.

“It’s like being the children of alcoholic parents,” Evan observed on one of the last days warm enough to lunch at the picnic table in back of the office. “You never know when the boom is going to fall.” 

I returned his gaze, took in his gray-blue eyes. “And the need to affix blame,” I said, “on someone else.” 

“They’re not drinkers,” he added quickly. 

“I know.” 

We were alone at the picnic table, having made our 2 p.m. deadlines for entertainment features. Evan lived with Lakota, who had helped me with the lost dog ad, and I didn’t think of this as a come-on, but rather something he would say to someone he knew would get it. 

"Does it show in my eyes?” I asked.

He smiled back. “Like minorities nodding to each other within a crowd? No. If it were the eyes, I might have thought it was your loss of Ed, for which I’m very sorry,” he added, “but it’s something more. How you deal with them, I guess.” 

“I’m not so great at dealing with them.” 

“None of us are,” he said, “but you bring something to it.” 

“Like you.” 

“I do what I can. It was nice of you to take the desk near Tina, so Catherine didn’t have to.” 

“It’s a desk,” I said. “I can see a window from there. Watch the light change during the day.” 

“And know there’s something . . . more, beyond this.”

“Is there?”

For all the hellish days of the job, we were lucky. Editorial had turnover, because most of the reporters were young; we had three j-school grads among us that fall. They would serve a year or two in this upstate backwater and then move on, but most of us—the ad guys, the production ladies (who could wear jeans to work), Evan, had roots here, families even. People were fired more often than quit.

In fact, I often found the work soothing. For every minute that was fascinating I endured an hour of stultifying boredom, but I seldom had the brain space to worry about money. I seldom had the time to spend any money. 

And every week, along with a tiny check, the newspaper handed me the plot line of a juicy novel. Too busy for last week’s novel? Here’s another one! Tragedies of Shakespearean proportion, tales of greed and avarice, the occasional comedy. The tragedies—the fires, the accidents—seemed to occur the weekends I was in charge of the paper, and I grew accustomed to talking to survivors. Possibly I began with a shared well of grief; whatever, on my first Sunday in charge of the Monday paper I called the parents of the 12-year-old who had been riding his bike home Saturday night and was struck and killed by a drunk driver. To my astonishment, these parents both got on the phone; they wanted to talk to me. And then I remembered, yes, you want the story, whatever it is, to be correct. I did so well on that front page, I could see Tina eyeing me on Monday, slotting me for the Tragedy Desk. 

Some days I got lucky: the man accused of strangling his wife, whose body washed ashore in a duffle bag, lived in a town I covered, so the story was mine. I took notes as Catherine coached me on what to ask the DA, but the sartorial observations—of the accused, his girlfriend, and his lawyers—were mine, and Tina relished them. 

Copyright © Debby Mayer