Wednesday, February 13, 2008


(Untitled, Barragán House, #20, laserchrome print by Luisa Lambri, 2005)

Another excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Ginny Bates. If you are already a familiar reader, begin below. The action in the story resumes immediately after my post of February 5th. If you need background, check the links in the sidebar on the right, fifth item down, to get caught up.

August 2004

A few days later, Myra got up to oatmeal already in the pot and Ginny at the table, sipping tea with a folder in front of her. Myra fixed herself a bowl with maple syrup and butter, added cottage cheese on the side, and sat down next to Ginny.

"What're you studying there?" she asked.

"Gillam said the washer didn't drain all the way from the load he put in last night" said Ginny.

"Again? I'll call the repair place after I eat" sighed Myra.

"Well, that's what I'm looking at. We've had it repaired three times in the last year and half, and once the year before that. We bought it new 17 years ago. I think it might be time to let it die" said Ginny.

Myra felt like she'd ambled off a dirt lane and discovered she was on a freeway. It felt too early to talk about the evils of "buying new" with Ginny. Before she could word an argument, Ginny went on.

"And when I started thinking about when we bought it, and the dryer, I realized that's also when we got the major kitchen appliances as well. You know, the freezer just plain quit six years ago, and they couldn't find a part to repair it, so we shelled out for a new one. But the freezer section in the fridge no longer keeps ice cream hard, and it's noisy, Myra -- listen to it right now, it's making a racket. We've gotten used to it, but that can't be normal."

Myra looked at her in growing disbelief. "So, what -- you want to buy all new appliances? Without any real need for it?"

"I think there comes a point where running old, sluggish machinery is more expensive and harder on the environment than energy-efficient models would be" said Ginny.

"If you are trying to play the one card you know will work with me -- " began Myra.

"I'm not playing anything, Myra. I'm just considering an unpopular idea. Listen, we have to buy Gillam a new bed this week, we always get beds spanking new. So...maybe we can get a deal at a furniture slash appliance store. But I refuse to be the villain here, the big spender. I want you to check out the pros and cons, and come up with a recommendation. Since the cost will come out of a joint account" said Ginny.

Me and my big mouth thought Myra. Out loud she said "Not my stove. No change to my stove."

"No, that's a work of art, as is what you produce from it" grinned Ginny. "I knew that was out of bounds." She shoved the folder over to Myra, stood up and kissed the top of her head, and added "There's no reason not to get Gillam a queen-size bed, Margie has one in her room left over from Hannah. I'll handle the desk and drafting table with him after school this week."

"I'm donating all the old stuff to Habitat or Goodwill" said Myra, as if scoring a point.

"Of course" said Ginny.

Over the next two days, Myra became a savant on the topic of energy ratings and appliance specs, droning on to whoever would listen. Margie was incensed at having to sit in a public laundromat with five loads because Gillam had to go shopping with Ginny and the washer still wasn't working. Eventually, selections were made and delivery was scheduled for Saturday morning. Ginny had agreed with Myra on a deep red for the new fridge and dishwasher, navy blue for the front-loading washer and dryer pair.

Chris came over on Saturday as well, to help finish the wall panels for Gillam's room. This meant it was up to Margie to clean out the fridge. When she was done, she stalked out to the deck where Myra and Chris were already covered in sawdust and announced "I'm leaving. Mall, movies, anywhere but this Extreme Home Makeover set."

Myra looked up and said "Appreciate your help. You okay for spending money?"

When Margie hesitated, torn between honesty and greed, Myra whispered "Don't tell Ginny, okay?" and pulled a fifty from her pocket. Margie slid the bill deftly into her bra and kissed Myra's grimy cheek. After she left, Chris could not stop laughing. "So much for imparting rational class values" she hooted.

"We're spending more than that on Gillam this week -- " began Myra, but she gave it up.

It was a long day. By the time Margie returned and was instructed to order pizza for their dinner, appliances had been installed, Gillam's ceiling and wall covering were up but his bed was still in the upstairs hall, leaned against the wall, and the deck was a mess. They ate hungrily, laughing often, and Margie was in such a good mood she offered to help Gillam set up his bed after dinner.

"When you're done with that, I have one last favor to ask" said Myra. She had them clear out the garden shed, stacking everything in the corner of the deck under the overhang, explaining "Chris and I are going to put linoleum down on the floor and hang some new organizers on the walls."

"Tonight?" said Margie. "It's dark."

"Yeah" said Myra cryptically. "We want to get it all finished today." She had Gillam haul in the bags of Sakrete from Chris's car, saying something about a new foundation for the shed. Gillam was happy to escape upstairs after that, lying on his new bed gazing at his new walls, done in colors that made Ginny shudder when she entered his room. Margie had three new CDs and shut herself up in her room as well.

Once they were presumed to be asleep, Myra got the waterproof flat safe from her and Ginny's closet and tucked it under the daybed in her study. They had the shed over on its side, blocking the view of their excavation from the only neighbors who could see what they were doing, the Limons. Ginny snorted and said "As if that sweet old couple are going to come rob us, Myra", but it was either that or work in darkness, Myra insisted, which Chris said was out of the question. Ginny went to bed at 11:00.

She didn't hear Myra join her, although she was glad to see Myra showered before getting under the sheets. The kitchen was littered with the remains of a fry-up, likely around dawn, Ginny thought. A note stated Chris was sacked out in the spare bedroom, and neither of them would be up before noon. Ginny made herself a cup of tea and walked outside to look quizzically at the shed. They'd repainted it to match the house, and a miniature weather station had been installed on its roof -- part of Myra's obsessive cover for their actions. She opened the door and looked at the floor. No sign of the trap door beneath, the concrete vault that now held $70,000 in gold and who knows what other contraband Myra had sneaked in there when Ginny wasn't looking.

Ginny sighed and shut the door tight. Narnia was snuffling everywhere curiously, which meant Margie had at least woke up long enough to open her bedroom door. Ginny turned to examine her garden. Small new zukes were epidemic, and enough ripe tomatoes to make at least a couple jars of preserves. She walked back into the house for her harvesting basket and snips -- this was a treasure she could appreciate.

24 August 2004

Allie came early to help Myra make dinner, saying Edwina would join them after work. Margie and Gillam were upstairs, and Ginny was in her studio. Allie had brought a bag of fresh okra from a farmer's market, and she and Myra bickered gently about whether to fry it or stew it -- Myra said stewed okra reminded her of chunky green snot. Her duck with orange sauce was already in the oven.

As they were slicing okra on two different cutting boards, planning to make it both ways, Myra began reminiscing about a girlfriend she'd once had who milked cows twice a day. "There was this muscle in her thumb that was really something to see" said Myra, looking with regret at her own poet-y hands. "Oh -- which reminds me -- "

She began walking back to her desk, motioning Allie to follow.

"You've studied a little anatomy, Al, right, for drawing classes? Come here, tell me what you think this muscle is." Myra opened a file on her computer and began shuffling through full-screen color close-ups of Natalie Coughlin.

"Whoa -- how many photos of her do you have?" said Allie, leaned over Myra's back.

"I dunno. So, see that bulge there? And it's not just when she's doing the butterfly, it's also when she's just raising her arm, like here. I mean, have you ever seen shoulders like this woman's got? What muscles has she developed to look this way?" Myra's tone was thick with reverence.

Allie suggested they find Gray's Anatomy online. Once they had, she got distracted by leg muscles and insisted Myra locate action shots of Jackie Joyner-Kersee as well. After several minutes of going back and forth between Natalie, Jackie and the anatomy text, Ginny poked her head around the corner and said coldly "I hate to interrupt your Olympic porn session, but it smells like dinner is burning."

"Oh, shit" said Myra, leaping to her feet. Allie followed her to the kitchen, helping Myra finish the okra. Ginny walked to Myra's computer and closed all the windows except the file labeled "Natalie", which she somehow, accidentally, deleted instead of closing. Those images were public JPEGs -- Myra could go hunt them down again, if she absolutely had to.

That night, as Myra and Ginny settled into bed, Ginny said "Daddy has tickets for next Monday, getting here around 11."

"How long is he staying?" asked Myra.

"He's leaving it open. He wants to help Gillam through the adjustment of being in a new school, without Carly, so he said he'd stay until he wasn't needed any more."

Myra muttered "Mary Poppins" and laughed.

"I'm thinking that first weekend after he's here, we should go to Olympia" continued Ginny.

"Why? I mean, won't that kinda rake up Gillam's missing Carly?" said Myra.

"Because Carly won't have a zayde there for him, I'm sure he's expected to just tough it out. Knowing that Gillam would be there at the end of that first week, someone to talk it over with, plus of course how much he treats Daddy like his own grandfather -- it'll give him a lifeline" said Ginny.

Myra felt ashamed that she hadn't thought of this herself. "Of course" she said. "We can hold off on the new school clothes expedition until then, go to the outlet mall, that'll make Margie happy, too."

"I'll tell Edwina tomorrow. I hate leaving her behind that weekend, it's her first week of teaching at Udub as well" said Ginny.

"Will it be that different from Reed, then?" wondered Myra. She could feel Ginny look at her in the darkness.

"Myra, she gave up tenure to come here and live with Allie. Not just all her friends, and the place she'd settled down in, but tenure. Academic freedom and economic security." Ginny tried to not sound critical, she knew this was one of the areas where Myra felt touchy about her ignorance.

"Wow. Is she having a hard time with it, then?"

"I think so. And she can't talk it over completely with Allie, because, well, you know how it is with new love, you don't want to make them feel bad" said Ginny. "Plus, I'm not sure Allie really understands what a commitment Edwina's made, either."

"Would it be all right if I talked with Allie about it?" asked Myra.

"It would be good" said Ginny.

"Will Edwina get tenure again, here I mean?" asked Myra.

"Probably, she's a hot commodity. But it's not just scholarship and teaching, there's a lot of political crap and white boy hostility she has to weather. And it will take a long time." Ginny sounded worried.

"Is it -- do you think she's gonna have second thoughts? About her choice?" Myra was getting worried, too.

"You mean about Allie? No. Edwina's never been in love like this, and we both know Allie's good for it, good for hitching your wagon to the rest of your life. But along with Allie came an extended family, a couple of teenagers, a crazy mother-in-law, most of us white, and, well, Edwina loves it, loves us, but it's like her version of a big fat dyke wedding" said Ginny.

"I'm glad she has your friendship" whispered Myra.

"I'm equally glad of hers" said Ginny. "She's older than all of us, you know, she's like the big sister to me that Cathy would've been if she hadn't had to fight her own battles in our house."

Ginny's voice was beginning to sound drowsy. Myra had been rubbing Ginny's back, moving from one shoulder to the other, and they were now completely relaxed.

"See you in our dreams" whispered Myra. "Mmm" said Ginny.

Two hours later, the phone rang. Myra got to it first, with Ginny saying "What? What is that?" in confusion.

Allie's voice said "Myra. My mama died."

"Oh fucking hell, Al, no."

"I'm at her place. They called me, said something was wrong but didn't tell me what until I got here." Allie's voice was rigid.

"What happened? You just saw her this morning, right?"

"They thinking heart attack. I have to say if I want an autopsy, not just the coroner report. What do you think?"

Myra covered the mouthpiece and looked at Ginny, who had managed to turn on the light and was staring at Myra anxiously. "Allie's mother died tonight" she said softly before returning to the call.

"Al, are you going to rest easy without an autopsy? I mean, the fact that you've even thought of it -- "

"I'd like to know what all she was contending with" said Allie slowly. "She's all the blood kin I got left, close in terms of biology..."

"Then yes, ask for one. It won't matter to your mama, she's gone from here now" said Myra. At that, she heard Allie sob. "I'm getting dressed, I'll be there in half an hour. Is Edwina with you?"

"Yeah. Okay, good. Come soon" said Allie, choking back tears.

As Myra pulled on clothes, she said "I hate leaving you behind. But you should sleep, if you can. It'll be a long day tomorrow."

"Give them all my love" pressed Ginny.

The request for an autopsy delayed other procedures, so that Ms. Billups was not cremated until Friday morning. They had a small service at the assisted living facility, for her friends and Allie's family in town. Allie had decided to bury her mother next to her grandmother, however, back in Alabama, so Friday evening the extended family, including Chris and Sima, boarded planes for Birmingham. They rented a minivan and went to a motel for the remainder of the night. Allie had cousins in Birmingham they planned to meet for breakfast. A funeral home in Russellville, where the burial was to occur, was arranging for pick-up of her mother's ashes.

Allie did very well, grieving easily and letting everyone else help her without objection, until they got to Alabama. There she suddenly became tense and tight-lipped. This persisted the next morning as they met her kin, the children and grandchildren of her mother's older sister Linda, now also dead. Margie introduced herself to them and led the way toward normalizing conversation. After eating, Margie asked Allie to show them where she had gone to school and lived from age six until she left home, and after hesitating, Allie agreed. The cousins begged off, saying they would meet up with them again in Russellville later that day.

Allie drove them to her high school first. School had already begun here, so they just circled the block while Margie peppered her with questions. Finally Allie said in a flat voice "I wasn't popular. I was considered a 'good girl', and that didn't mean good, not really. I made straight A's, I didn't date, I didn't have a lot of friends."

"You didn't date because you were a lesbian, right? Could you not be out then?" asked Gillam.

Allie said grimly "No, but I wasn't out to myself either, yet. I was -- in limbo. Until I was a senior."

"What happened then, you meet a girl?" asked Margie.

"I started drinking" said Allie. That shut up both kids for half a block. Myra was about to break the thick silence with some comment, any comment, when Margie asked "Well, when did you meet J.T.? She was your first girlfriend, right?" Margie looked at Edwina apologetically, as if Edwina could possibly be threatened by this.

"Not until I got to Pensacola" said Allie. With a sigh, to ward off the next question, she said "I went there with a guy right after graduation. Met her in a bar two weeks later."

"A guy?" exclaimed Gillam. "Not like a boyfriend?"

"A white man old enough to be my daddy" said Allie. "He had money, I needed to get out of town."

This was not news to Myra or Chris, or Edwina from the looks of it, but Ginny and the kids were gobsmacked. Margie looked at Allie with a considering expression on her face. Myra didn't want to hear what question might come from her next. She said "Al, your grade school is gonna be swarming with kids, too. You wanna show 'em the duplex you and your Nana lived in, and then we can hit the road."

The duplex was abandoned, the roof partially gone. Gillam and Margie insisted on going around to peek in all the windows, and Allie trailed after them, a disheartened expression on her face. Ginny stayed in the car with Myra, saying "What's going on with her? Delayed grief about her mother?"

Before Myra could answer, Chris said "She's scared. Being here scares her."

Edwina glanced at Chris and nodded. "It came up for her when we were here last November, but not this much."

"Well, her side is down one more" said Myra. "Plus -- Ginny, we need to head up teams, here. I know the kids are naturally curious, this is their first chance to find out details about their beloved Allie, but it's not leaving her a lot of room to have her own reactions. How about if I start answering their questions, as best I can, and you help them deal with their responses to that? So Allie is off the hook, parenting-wise."

"Deal" said Ginny. "Are you going to reassure Allie that we'll take care of her, she doesn't need to be scared?"

Myra blew in air over her lip. "We can't take care of what she's scared about. It's not necessarily present-time. And she doesn't need my reassurance. She just needs room to feel it, and if it's safe enough for her to do that, it's enough."

"More than enough" said Edwina softly.

When it came time to head for Russellville, after checking the route and verifying it was about two hours away, Allie jingled the keys in her hand for a minute before handing them to Myra.

"You better drive. I'll take shotgun, to direct you."

Myra gave Ginny a look. Once they were underway, she saw Ginny in the far back seat, between Gillam and Margie, explaining something to them quietly and assumed it the meaning of "driving while black". Later, when they passed through the center of one small town with a bus terminal on the main drag, Allie pointed to a dairy stand at the corner and said "That little joint used to have the best root beer ever. I think they maybe they mixed their own."

Gillam, who had been leaning over the back seat to talk with Chris, overheard this and asked "Can we stop, see if they still have it?" Allie shook her head abruptly, and Myra drove on. There were no "Colored Service" signs up at the stand now, of course; she'd explain it to her kids later.

In Russellville, they checked into the motel where Ginny had reserved a block of suites for Allie's relatives as well as them. Allie called the funeral home and checked in. As everyone gathered in Allie and Edwina's room to figure out where to eat lunch, a knock came at the door. Allie answered and yelled "You made it!" She came in with her arm around the neck of Vachel, her Uncle Boyd's only son. Her grin was ear to ear.

Vachel had visited them a few times in Seattle and was greeted as gladly by everyone else. A beautiful short man with hair he dyed red, his queeny accent came and went depending on his surroundings. He cast the deciding vote on their lunch location and they traipsed out to the cars, Allie and Edwina switching over to ride with Vachel.

Allie's tension eased considerably with Vachel's presence. After lunch they went back to the motel for a while, where the kids went swimming and Allie greeted family members as they arrived. Vachel was the only one of Boyd's children who came; the rest of them remained in New Orleans. The Birmingam group checked in, and an hour later, Chaney's oldest daughter, her husband and one of their daughters pulled in as well from Mobile. Allie's mother Oneta had been the youngest, by far, of four: Linda the oldest girl, Chaney and Boyd. Boyd had been the baby until Oneta was born when he was 12. All of the siblings were dead now. All Allie had left were cousins.

Cousins who did know Allie was a lesbian, apparently, but were taken aback by her white-plus-one-Indian family, not sure how to plug them into the kinship network. Margie kept grilling everyone for stories about Allie when she was little, which gave a comfortable topic for them all to fall back on. Even Allie enjoyed the tales that got told, most of them funny or about how smart she'd been, how well-behaved, how quiet.

Myra had gathered up all the photos they had of Allie's mother in Seattle and made multiple copies to give away to her family. These were pored over and slipped into pocketbooks. Everyone commented on how happy she looked, and their was faint relief in their voices: She'd had a hard run of it, but at least she was happy at the end. The most that poor people can hope for, thought Myra.

That night was the sitting at the funeral home, and Myra had arranged for it to be catered by a local restaurant, a buffet style dinner in a separate area at the back, with covered picnic tables. The platters of barbecue made Gillam's eyes bulge, and with diabetes stalking the family, Myra had gotten half the desserts made with artificial sweetener. Since there was no body to view, only an urn, most people stayed out with the food, talking in a nonstop, fluid flow. Liquor was coming from somewhere -- pocket flasks, Myra guessed. She could smell it on breaths and sense its social lubrication as the evening wore on.

She went back to the buffet for her third helping of links plus their amazing potato salad, which she was about to decide had a dash of cinnamon in it. Chris had joined her when they heard from the nearest table a woman saying "Well, but Oneta was spoiled rotten, being a change of life baby, you know."

A second voice said "That ain't all of why; Sarilda was always trying to make up to her for you know what."

Myra and Chris looked at each, then Chris glanced around to see if Allie was in earshot. She was not; Vachel, however, was nearby and came to stand behind them, whispering "Gossip on its toxic run."

"Do you know what they're talking about?" asked Myra. He nodded. "Does Allie?" He said "I think not."

"Then don't tell us" said Chris. "It doesn't matter now."

Finally people were ushered tactfully to their cars. Myra hoped the short drive back to the motel didn't result in any wrecks for the more enebriated. She finally located a missing Gillam at the catering truck, stuffing his pockets with cookies and protesting "They're gonna throw them out, Mama!"

Back at the motel, Allie went to the bathroom for a minute -- to take her injection, Myra thought -- and settled on her bed, leaning against the wall with Edwina beside her. Margie lay down on her stomach across the foot of the bed, and the rest of them, including Vachel, sat down to decompress.

"The man at the funeral home said if we meet there by 9:30, that be plenty of time to get to the cemetery" said Allie.

"I guess we should check out before then" said Sima. "Our flight leaves at 7 in Birmingham, right? So, lunch here, drive back, and kill time?"

Edwina nodded, but Allie seemed to be thinking something over. Finally she found Myra's eyes and said "I think I'm ready."

Myra understood instantly what she meant, then second-guessed herself and asked "For what?"

"To find out about my people. Can we do that from here?" Myra saw Edwina's hand in Allie's tighten.

"Yep. Get a good running start on it, anyhow, once the county records' office opens" said Myra. "Plus a lot of walking around cemeteries. You want to come back in a couple of weeks, let me check out census rolls first?"

"Well...I'm afraid if I leave, I won't never come back. Could you stay with me, next few days? This week?" asked Allie.

Myra looked at Edwina first. Edwina had to be back in Seattle on Monday morning to start teaching at Udub, no way out of that commitment. And her own kids were starting school, Gillam without Carly -- she looked at Ginny, who was startled but resigned. Ginny said "Daddy's coming in day after tomorrow, we'll be okay." She gave a brief nod in the direction of Edwina. Myra wasn't sure if that meant "We'll take care of Edwina" or "I don't know if Allie should abandon Edwina right now".

But Allie was looking deep into Edwina's eyes and they said something inaudible to each other. Edwina said "I think you should" and that carried through the room.

Myra said "All right. I'm in." She reached for her pack, pulled out a notebook and said "Let me get an outline of what we might find here in this county, in case there's questions we might have for your kin tomorrow. Your Nana's maiden name was Roscoe, right?"

"Rascoe" said Allie. "With an E at the end."

Vachel laughed sarcastically. "We was expected to take the massa's name, because it proved how good he'd been to us, but we couldn't spell it exactly like they did. So the white Rascos stayed plain Rasco, and all us former slaves had to add on the E."

They talked for another hour, until the strain of the day made Allie's eyes droop. Ginny hustled them all off to bed, leaving a wake-up call at the desk for 7:30.

The funeral was extremely Baptist and unnecessarily long, given how few people were there. The humidity was hard on everyone, and the strain of parting was eating at Myra. She was more worried about Edwina leaving without Allie than her own parting from Ginny.

After lunch at the coffeeshop and final goodbyes to cousins -- which might well be the last time Allie saw any of them except Vachel, Myra thought -- they managed to rent a car from a dealership that was open on Sunday afternoons. It was a used Buick, with a compass ball stuck on the inside windshield and crappy mileage, but it had AC and was theirs for the week, lucky to get it, thought Myra. They returned to the motel, to the room she and Allie had kept for themselves.

"I'll call you every night" whispered Myra, wrapped around Ginny.

"I wish I could stay here with you two. But I suspect she really needs it to be just you" answered Ginny.

"And Edwina. She'd rather have Edwina" said Myra.

Ginny looked doubtful, but didn't argue. "You have enough cash on you? The last of the traveler's checks I put in your pack, I can use the credit card for the rest of our trip."

When their van disappeared from view, Allie finally cried. It turned into a long bout of grief, and at the end of it, she slept half an hour while Myra held her. They got up and tracked down the place which had catered the day before, Myra ordering links and that potato salad again for her dinner. At the motel, Allie took her shot, showered, and went right to sleep, while Myra sat up making research logs to be filled in the next day.

Copyright 2008 Maggie Jochild.

1 comment:

shadocat said...

Okay, I haven't started reading yet, but I just have to say that is an AWESOME PICTURE!

Now onto the latest chapter of "Ginny"...