Monday, February 25, 2008


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 two days ago. If you need background, check the links in the sidebar on the right, fifth item down, to get caught up.

10 December 2004

Myra sat on the white brocade sofa in what was now David's living room. There was a vast new blue carpet laid down over the old carpet. The cleaning service had gotten out the bloodstains but everyone's eye was drawn to the slightly cleaner splotches on the old white carpet. So Ginny had picked up the phone and gotten a new look delivered within the day. David's relief was visible on his face.

Nobody was using the bathroom off the living room, however. They went through David's office to the guest bathroom, or used the half-bath off the kitchen.

Ginny was sitting on a low padded bench in front of her, one side touching Myra's left calf. The funeral home had brought these benches in, and every member of Helen's immediate family were sitting shiva on them, except Myra. She was exempt partly because she was not blood kin and also because it hurt her knees after half an hour being on them, and Ginny had said "There's no need for pain in the observance of respect."

Sitting shiva had begun after they returned from the funeral on the evening of the 8th. It had continued through Thursday and Friday until sunset, when it was suspended for shabbos. With havdallah tonight, it had resumed. Food had been brought in by members of Helen and David's temple, and after eating, a minyan had been present so prayers were done. Everyone except the family were now gone. Nate and Elyse were putting coats on their toddler Elena and the new baby, to take them home to bed. Noah and his girlfriend Gayle were also leaving.

Ginny had put back on the clothes she'd been wearing since the funeral, her black velvet outfit with a tear in the left shoulder. Myra had not ripped her clothing but was keeping on the same attire, too, rinsing out her underarm and crotch areas each night in the bathroom sink and hanging them to dry on the shower rod. She and Ginny were sleeping in the guest room. Margie was in Ginny's childhood bedroom, which she had whispered to Myra was a depressing place. Gillam and David had put rollaways in David's office, each of them trying to take care of the other.

Shiva was fascinating to Myra. She found she was enjoying it, especially when friends of Helen's were not present. The family had nothing to do except sit and talk with each other. In her family of origin, this would have been a torment. But Ginny's family liked one another, liked conversation, and were allowing David to set the topic. David, in turn, was deflecting attention back toward his daughters, his grandchildren. It was quiet but not boring.

Myra was hearing a wealth of stories, things she itched to pull out her notebook and write down. Families construct narrative through stories, and now that Helen was gone, the narrative could shift, was shifting already. It was doing Ginny a world of good to be spending long stretches in a room with her sister and her father, Myra could tell.

Remarkably, neither Margie nor Gillam had gotten fidgety yet. They'd used their chances to play with Elena, and Myra had quietly told them to take two long breaks a day on their own, upstairs in privacy, to call friends or (she knew in Gillam's case) access the internet on their cell phones. But they also seemed happy to sit and listen. The anecdotes were frequently hilarious, and even when they weren't, the adult emotion on display was not aimed at them. They could participate without demand.

After Nate and Noah's departure, David stretched out his legs -- something he was doing often, Myra noticed, wondering if his joints were hurting him as well - and he said "I forgot to ask Ms. Greenbaum if she would organize some help for me next week."

"For what?" asked Cathy.

David looked apologetic. "I don't think I'm up to the task of sorting through Helen's things. In our bedroom. Her...clothes, in particular. But I'm not going to be able to sleep in there again until it's done."

"I'll do that for you, Daddy" said Ginny.

"Me, too" echoed Cathy.

"Oh, no, that's too hard a thing to ask of you -- " began David.

"I'd like to do it" said Cathy. "I don't think mother would appreciate it being someone other than us."

"Well..." said David.

Ginny looked at Cathy and said "I know this violates custom, but -- you want to do it tonight?"

Cathy looked at David, who said "I have no objection." Cathy said to Michael "We'll need storage boxes from the garage, could you carry those up for us?"

As he left the room, Ginny went to the kitchen and returned with a carton of trash bags. Myra was standing and asked "Would it be all right if I went with you? I mean, if you want my support."

Ginny said "I would appreciate you being there with me. What about you, Margie? Gillam?"

David was standing also. Gillam, showing extra white around his eyes, said "Uh...I kinda don't want to, is that okay?"

"Totally fine" said Ginny, going to give him a hug.

Margie looked torn. "I'd like to have something small, personal of hers, to keep, but..."

"We'll show you all the family items we save, and you can choose whatever Daddy wants to give up" said Ginny. Margie stayed on her seat, squeezing David's hand as he walked by.

Myra had never seen inside Helen and David's bedroom. It was vast and formal, with no sign of David's taste anywhere. David hesitated in the doorway, then crossed to the bed and sat down on the chest at its foot. Myra pulled over an armless stuffed chair beside him and sat with her arm next to his. "Anything you feel, anything at all, is fine to share with me" she murmured. "And if you change your mind, just tell us."

Ginny said to Cathy "Closet or dresser first?" At that moment, Michael arrived with a stack of plastic storage bins. Cathy took them from him. He said "I'm going to sit with the kids downstairs."

"Thanks" said Ginny. David said "I don't mind if you go in my study and watch TV with them. We did it after Mama died. Just don't tell Rabbi Mark, he's thirty years younger than me but like an old hasid in how conservative he is."

Michael grinned and said "I'll lock the front door. We can claim fear of crime in this neighborhood if somebody is nuts enough to drop by this late."

Cathy turned back to Ginny and said "The bathroom first."

Myra heard them talking to each other in there amid the clank of bottles. After half an hour they emerged with a partially full trash bag, a box with a few unopened items in it, and a gold tray holding an assortment of jewelry. Ginny handed the jewelry to David and said "She has more, we'll keep it all together." David set the tray on the bed behind him without looking at the rings and necklaces on it.

Ginny and Cathy went through the dresser next. They began speaking in single words: "Trash...Goodwill...maybe." Maybe meant it went into a separate box, for someone to make a decision about later, Myra guessed. Cathy created a double trash bag for clothes to go to Goodwill, because there were too many items for the boxes they had. Almost everything except underwear went in the Goodwill bag; Helen did not have much that was old or worn.

At the back of one drawer, Cathy found a bundle of letters wrapped in a scarf. When she pulled back the silk and saw what she had, she froze, unwilling to see who they were from. After a moment, Ginny took them from her, wrapped them again and set them in the Maybe box. Myra felt David shiver. She earnestly hoped the letters were from him, or Ginny, but she doubted it.

At the funeral she had seen the man Helen had been lovers with for decades. Ginny pointed him with a barely-breathed whisper, adding "Look at his wife's face. She'll divorce him now. He's clearly just lost the love of his life."

The closet was as big as Myra's bedroom had been when she met Ginny, with rows of built-in cabinets, drawers and racks. Half of one wall was clear plastic boxes of shoes. Myra heard Ginny say something inaudible except for the last two words, "Imelda Marcos." Ginny walked to the back, out of sight, saying to Cathy over her shoulder "I forgot about the fur vault."

Eight furs and three stoles were carried to the bed and laid out by them. "Thank god Gillam isn't here to see this" said Ginny.

Cathy raised her eyebrows. "I was going to suggest you take the black ermine hat for Margie, but if your kids are going to be upset -- "

"Margie won't. She'll point out the animals are already dead. And you're right, she'd love it. What do you think, Daddy?" asked Ginny.

"Fine with me" he said in a thin voice. "I -- never cared for any of them, do what you want."

"We could donate them to the consignment shop run by Hadassah" said Ginny. "This will bring in a lot of money."

"No" said David suddenly. "Women in the temple will recognize her furs. Helen would hate that. They have to go someplace anonymous."

"Oh, I'm sorry" said Ginny contritely. "Of course." Cathy went downstairs and raided the giftwrap closet for tissue paper, folding it around the furs before placing them loosely into trash bags and labeling them on the outside.

They unboxed shoes and made a Goodwill bag for them. They worked their way through three-fourths of the closet, which is how much space Helen's garments occupied, even with all of David's work suits and dress shoes. One entire drawer was boxes of jewelry, which Ginny added to the bed array. As they emptied the last drawer, Ginny said "We've found no mementoes. No scrap books, or things like -- well, stuff I made in school. Did she not save anything like that?"

"I have a cabinet in my office full of things" said David. After half a minute, he added "And her work desk in the kitchen alcove, we can look there." From his tone, Myra thought they wouldn't find anything there except household accounts and recipes.

Ginny pulled a chair into the closet and began lifting things down from the final shelf, high and at the back. These were a series of dress cartons and hatboxes, most of them empty. Cathy took one of the hatboxes and put Margie's bequest in it. They both turned as Ginny said "Huh."

She stepped down from the chair holding a wooden box, two feet long by one foot wide, with a hinged lid and a brass hasp. As it came into view, David said "Wha -- where did you find that?"

"Behind all the hatboxes" said Ginny as David reached his arms out. She gave him the box and he opened it with trembling hands.

"My's been missing since..." He looked up at Ginny. "This was Mama's. Your bubbe Rosa's. I brought it home after the funeral, and then it disappeared. I finally decided somehow it had gotten thrown out...I've grieved it, you don't know -- " Mentioning grief seemed to bring him to a halt. He sat down beside Myra again.

Cathy came to stand beside the bed, and Ginny sat back on Myra's lap, as David slowly lifted items from the box. A strand of cheap pearls. A leather fold that turned out to contain David and Sam's high school graduation certificates. A paper envelope full of old photos. A silk kippah, so old Myra was afraid it might fall apart in David's shaky hands. A tarnished yod and an equally tarnished baby spoon. A small blue jar of the kind that Vick's used to come in, which contained old rings and brooches.

Myra saw a drop of wetness fall onto the bottom of the box, which seemed to be leather. She realized it was a tear, running off the slope of David's cheek. Ginny wiped his face, then reached to the leather, which turned out to be a book almost exactly the dimensions of the box.

Ginny opened it curiously. Written in fountain pen on the front page was "Accounts, Ze'ev Baetz, 1919 - ". David drew in his breath sharply and said "That's his handwriting." They both turned to the next page. Ink lines had been hand-drawn down the sheet, creating columns headed with date, location, +/-, and $. Written underneath were lines indicating the purchase of "ethyl", cheese and crackers, or the sale of "1 bx asstd dry gds". The amounts seemed miniscule --meals for 15 cents, a sale of 92 cents. At the end of each week, a careful reckoning was made. He was not always clearing a profit.

It was a stark record of a lonely, hardscrabble life. No personal comments, no itinerary except for the list of locations which would, Myra was sure, reveal a route on a map. The handwriting was educated, if old-fashioned. The entries went on for about a third of the book, then ended with no final tally.

"I've never seen this before" said David. "I didn't know she had it. I didn't have a chance to go through the box before it...why would Helen have put it at the back? It must have been her."

Ginny didn't answer. Cathy said kindly "Perhaps she forgot it was there." Ginny began shutting the book, when Myra noticed a different kind of wear on the outer edge.

"Hang on, Gin" she said. "Open it again -- to the back, not the front."

When Ginny did, she and David gasped at the same time. A detailed drawing filled both pages, margin to margin. It was of a small town main street, with cars from the 1920s parked at angles before high curbs, glass storefronts full of items, people leaning against lampposts talking. It was done in pencil, the same lead used throughout (as sharp as you could get with a pocketknife, thought Myra) but a gifted hand still creating shading, depth of line, even clever erasure in spots to make the scene literally leap from the page. In the bottom left-hand corner was written "Z. Baetz."

Nobody seemed to be able to speak. David, his hands shaking violently now, turned to the next page in. It was blank, but the page following that had another scene, unmistakeably the Crosstimbers region of Texas, postoak savannah with a dirt road beside a barbed-wire fence. After a minute, Myra spotted the scissortailed flycatcher sitting on the branch of a tree at the focal center of the drawing.

Ze'ev never drew on the back of a page, as if someday maybe the lined sheets could be removed from the binding and framed. There were over two dozen scenes, each of them as complex and animated as what Ginny created. David suddenly pushed the book away from him, and then he was sobbing, leaned forward with his fists on his knees, his forehead resting on his fists.

"He said I had to learn a profession, I couldn't hope to keep a family on my painting!" wailed David. "He was so furious with me!"

Ginny and Cathy held their father from either side, Ginny crying with him.

"She never told me. She knew I got it from him, that hunger, and she never told me" David continued. "She should have told me."

A hunger Ginny had also inherited. But David had made sure she found the freedom to pursue it, thought Myra. We all come from a long line of people trying to give the next generation one square meter more of a room of their own. If we're lucky in our parents, that is.

Later, after David washed his face, they went downstairs together, David carrying the wooden box which he placed on his desk. Gillam was nearly asleep on his rollaway, Michael sitting quietly in the nearby easy chair. He said Margie had gone to bed, so Ginny went upstairs to check on her. David took the packet of photographs from the box to the kitchen table, where the adults had tea and David identified members of his family long dead in scallop-edged black and whites and a few tintypes. This time, Myra did get her notebook to keep track of names and histories.

That night, in bed, Ginny cried as she had not since her mother died. The following day, she persuaded David to open his cabinet of memorabilia and show his children and grandchildren what he had gathered over the decades. It was a good collection, including a lock of Ginny's hair that made Myra open the locket around her neck and compare it to those taken from her children at their first haircuts. She was struck by how perfectly David and Ginny's genes were being handed on. Both Nate and Noah had visible resemblances to Michael and to Helen, and little Elena looked a great deal like the photos of Helen as a baby. But somehow Ginny's DNA was sorting out everything but the Baetz lineage.

It was extremely hard to leave that afternoon. Ginny promised to be home the following Friday, and David said he would come visit after their return from the Galapagos. Myra drove to the airport in near silence. Margie carried her hatbox on board. Myra wondered if David was going to sell the house, if they'd ever again step inside it. She didn't want to lose the place where Ginny had grown up, although she suspected Ginny would not share that feeling.

Chris and Sima met them at the gate in Seattle. They both exclaimed over Gillam's shorn hair, a cut he had given himself more from empathy with David than personal grief, Myra suspected. Narnia was waiting for them at home -- Chris had gone to retrieve her earlier that day. Late that night, after the kids were asleep, Myra got up and went to Ginny's studio to look at the unfinished canvas again. She'd never had a chance to talk with Ginny about it. A sharing yet to come -- the idea comforted her enough to allow her to finally fall asleep without Ginny beside her.

The next shabbos, Myra made all Ginny's favorite dishes. Ginny got home at 5:00, bursting in the front door from her cab ride with screams of hello and the kind of excitement Narnia thought was appropriate, for once. Pat, Patty and their sons drove up from Olympia, in time to stand with Ginny as she led kaddish at sunset. Every leaf was put in the dining table with Allie and Edwina, Sima and Chris present.

Ginny was unusually quiet but seemed at peace. When Gillam expressed his anxiety about their going on the planned trip to the Galapagos instead of spending the holidays with David, Ginny reassured him and Margie both: "He was insistent. And, the thing is, he had already called a realtor by the time I left. The minute shiva ended. There's a complex ten minutes away from Cathy and Michael's that's for older folks with a spa, a cafe, maid service, and a wonderful garden. He can have a spare bedroom and there's a small sunny room at the back where he intends to paint. He's on the waiting list. I think he really wants to get things underway with his life, then come to see us once that's settled."

Margie and Gillam both looked flabbergasted at the mention of David selling his house. Ginny said gently "Mother and Daddy were not a happy couple. They had not been for a long time. He's grieving that she died, but not at losing her personally -- that happened years ago."

Myra felt a subtle stiffness from Patty and Pat. She covered with "So, we're planning to be back in time for our Boxing Day tea, only we're keeping the invite list small -- those of us here plus Jaime and Davonn. Well, excluding Allie and Edwina, who will still be gone."

Patty said "We'll be back the night before, but I don't know about driving up..."

"I can take the train if necessary" said Carly quickly. Pat frowned but didn't say anything. Myra covered again, saying she had begun trying to read The Voyage of the Beagle as preparation for re-living some of Darwin's experiences. This led into other conversation.

Pat and Patty left early; they had a hotel room for the weekend and planned to visit other friends. Truitt left with them. Carly and Gillam went upstairs, and Margie sprawled on the couch with her cell, talking to Jaime in hushed giggles. Everyone else took tea back to Myra's study. Myra sat on her big stuffed chair so Ginny could settle on the arm against her. Before joining her, however, Ginny went to say hello to the geckos. When she came back to Myra, she said "I see you put my canvas out of view."

Myra cleared her throat. "I cleaned up your work space before I left. I looked at your painting, Gin."

Ginny swiveled around to meet Myra's eyes. "Did you, now."

"I never have before. And...It's haunted me, a bit." Myra explained why. Their friends were very quiet.

Ginny kissed Myra's forehead and said, indirectly, "I suppose I'll never recapture that painting. I'll have to scrape it down and start over."

"I think you should wait" said Myra. "Set it aside. If nothing else, it's -- herstorical."

Ginny looked at her again. "All right." They turned to catch up with their friends' lives.

The next five days passed at jet-speed. Ginny started a new painting the day after her return, so Myra embarked on the preparations for their trip on her own, parceling out duties to Margie and Gillam when possible. She gave Margie a credit card with a list of suggestions and dropped her off at the mall to do gift-shopping for the family. She had Gillam create two batches of cake, cookies, or other edibles for the festivities after their return, freezing them as they were produced. She had to admit, both kids did a creditable job.

Once Ginny emerged from Painterland, she took over Myra's list with energetic efficiency. Myra switched to loading files to her laptop that she might want for the writing jag she anticipated on board ship at the Galapagos. On the 19th, they had an early gift exchange and celebration with Allie, Edwina, Ms. Schevitz, Sima, Chris, Jaime and his mother. Gillam was gloomy because Carly couldn't make it. The next morning, way too early, the four of them caught a shuttle to the airport.

When they returned at noon on the 26th, Ginny was in a fever of needing to paint rather than simply draw in her sketchbook. Margie was sick of Gillam's company, and when they pulled up to the house, she screamed when she saw Jaime's pink Vespa parked out front. He was under the carport, keeping dry. Gillam had a bag full of film he could hardly wait to develop. Myra felt congested and a little disoriented at the plunge back into responsibility. When her friends showed up, she let them do all the work of setting out a buffet. She kept drinking tea and closing her eyes to remember the warmth, the bob of ocean, the extraordinary presence of animals who were without fear.

Ms. Schevitz came over at 3:00, escorted on her walker by Gillam holding an umbrella over them both. She accepted a plate and settled in next to Myra. She said "There was just a bulletin on TV that there's been a large-ish underwater earthquake north of Australia. I wonder if it will ripple around the plate and affect us here on the West Coast."

Myra felt a sick, hot spasm pass through her. "How big is large-ish?"

"Oh, I think they said in the low 7's. No major damage reported."

But Myra got up and surprised everyone by turning on the television to find a report. It took her a while, and it was a brief notice, reinforcing what Ms. Schevitz had said. However, Myra turned to look at Chris and said "This is bad. I can tell." She was fighting the need to vomit.

Chris laughed and said "Are you doing that Obiwan Kenobe thing, 'There's been a disturbance in the force?'" When Myra said "I mean it", Chris stopped laughing. "Let's go in your study and see if NPR has anything" she said.

It took several hours for the real news to start coming in. By that time, Myra was in bed with a high fever. Ginny said "She must have picked up a bug on the islands, I don't know if I should take her to the emergency room." Chris, who had refused to go home with Sima at the end of the evening, sat with her hands on Myra's feet and replied "It's not viral. It's spiritual." A few minutes later, she borrowed their car to go home and bring back sweetgrass and sage, which she burnt in Myra's bedroom despite Ginny's vocal protests that it might exacerbate Myra's asthma. Eventually Ginny went to sleep on Myra's daybed, leaving Chris with Myra. who could hardly be roused from sleep.

The next morning, Myra did get up, dark rings around her eyes. She ate some toast when Ginny forced her, then glued herself to the television. Chris had to go to work, urging Ginny to keep pushing tea through Myra. Ginny had been separated from her second canvas and looked a little ill herself. When she insisted Myra stop watching network news coverage of what was turning out to be the worst human disaster in their lifetimes, saying it was sensational but not substantive, Myra went to her computer and began finding home videos of the waves as they hit. Horrific footage of people dying. Ginny tried to intervene again, yelling at Margie and Gillam to leave the study, they shouldn't see this. Myra would not be torn away, however. Weeping in fits, she said "This is really happening. This is my world, these are my people. I can't shut this out."

Eventually she fell asleep at her desk. When Ginny found her slumped over, her heart almost stopped. Myra woke up after she shook her, and crawled onto the daybed with Ginny, crying again. She said "This is it, the last of it. This terrible year is over. It was all prelude to this." She cried herself to sleep and Ginny lay holding her. Gillam crept back in after a while and whispered with Ginny, who asked him to make them all dinner. Margie came to help him. They ate in Myra's study, her curled on the daybed under a quilt, accepting the bites Ginny offered her.

The next day, she was better. Allie came over and helped her pull the safe from under the garden shed. Myra and Ginny took the gold to the bank, converted it to a cashier's check, and mailed it to the tsunami relief fund. "Just for starters" Myra said. When she found out that George and Laura Bush's entire contribution to the disaster had been only $10,000, she became so angry she drove to Nancy's and asked for an emergency session. David arrived that afternoon and spent a week with them, reassuring Ginny with his presence.

They had a quiet New Year's Eve. Myra had not been able to write anything new since the 26th, but she was coaxed into a round of line dancing with them all, trying to perfect one of Carly's defter moves. She forced herself back to an appearance of normal by Gillam's birthday, making his requested cake and thrilling to his thrill when he opened his big gift, a circa 1967 Mitchell BNC 35 mm movie camera in excellent condition.

The next day, she wrote a poem. Paradoxically, it was about Helen's death, but the heartache and dread in it was not about her. A week later, on the anniversary of Margie's rape, they spent that Saturday night playing games as an extended family, with Jaime, Carly and David present. Margie was still seeing Sheila twice a month. Myra and Ginny were going to Nancy every other week as well, and Gillam saw her as needed. But Myra was right: The worst was over. She added later, If you didn't count how Bush was trashing America and the world.

Copyright 2008 Maggie Jochild.

1 comment:

letsdance said...

rich, rich reading, Maggie.....
You never disappoint.