Sunday, February 24, 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.

November 2004

For her sixteenth birthday, Margie asked to have a "teenagers only" party at the house. Myra and Ginny sat down to negotiate this with her. Afterward, Margie was unsettled at how well it had gone, wondering if there was something she had missed. Maybe she shouldn't have agreed to let Carly and Gillam, plus two guests, attend until 9 p.m. But Carly was a really good dancer, and she wanted Truitt there, so she could hardly let them come and exclude Gillam.

The actual day of her birthday, Saturday, they had dinner out at Margie's choice of restaurants. Jaime and his mother Nadia came with them all. Margie wore a low-cut top showing off Jaime's gift to her, a beautiful necklace of copper spirals that he explained came from his mother's native culture, the Purépecha of Michoacan. Myra privately thought the biggest gift of the night, however, was Allie's hand-made book of certificates for driving lessons, painted with hilarious scenes of her and Margie in a jalopy hurtling down hills or leaping canals teeming with orca.

Sunday night the party began at 6:00. After greeting the first guests, Myra and Ginny holed up in Margie's bedroom with the laptop and two plates of dinner they could heat up in the kitchenette. After eating, they watched a movie on the laptop, taking breaks to go out to the private deck and listen in on the conversations from the deck and yard below. The boom of bass from downstairs was like a heartbeat.

Ginny sat at the table to work on sketches for mural project she was bidding on in Vancouver -- her first public mural -- while Myra wrote. Twice, as pre-arranged, they made surprise visits downstairs, checking on the snack supply, making sure smokers stayed at the back fence by the sycamore, and keeping an eye on Gillam, who looked a little crazed with all the older teenager stimulation. Myra had locked off their bedroom, removed the power cable from her computer, and Ginny had covered gecko-world in black paper.

Davonn and a friend came for a while, making a huge impression. Upstairs, when they heard Marcia Griffith call out "It's electric!", Ginny and Myra had leaped to their feet and danced along privately. "Remember when we lived up here that couple of years, when both of them were babies?" said Ginny, brushing against Myra. "We have some memories soaked into the walls of this room" agreed Myra. "She's old enough to be an emancipated minor and leave us for good" said Ginny. They giggled. The "jeep on, stage two" plan was working.

For his guests, Gillam invited Tamika and another girl from school. When Tamika found out this was not a double-date situation for him and Carly, she began mouthing off but discovered Carly could give as good as he got -- this Myra heard from Margie the next day. They got acres of laughs from it while Gillam was out of hearing.

At 11:00, Myra went downstairs and began putting food away. Margie was dancing closely and dreamily with Jaime, but she finally got the hint and, bluntly, announced the party was over. Myra left the rest of cleaning to Margie. Once Jaime had been seen out the front door, the last to leave, Ginny set the alarm and they went to bed.

They slept in until 10:00. When they got up, not a single thing had been done to straighten up the house. Myra could smell stale cigarette odor in all the common rooms, despite Margie's genuine efforts to keep kids from lighting up inside. Margie was apparently still asleep. Gillam and Carly were munching bananas and standing with the refrigerator door open, trying to decide on breakfast. Myra said "Let's go out to brunch -- go get shoes on." As they scrambled to comply, Ginny wrote a note reminding Margie that part of their party deal was that Margie was completely responsible for clean-up. She took her cell and they left.

After eating, they went by a crafts bazaar and spent most of the afternoon there. Carly got dropped off at the train station, where an extra run had been added for the holiday weekend. When they got home, the house was clean -- the mopped floors were still damp -- but the back yard was littered with butts and cups. Margie was lying on the couch in a foul mood, Narnia beside her.

"Not quite done, I see" said Myra, looking out the back wall.

"I have a headache, three of my best CDs are missing, and Narnia has upchucked twice" complained Margie.

Myra knelt by Narnia, checking her eye color and looking in her mouth. Narnia's forehead was furrowed in misery. "Do you think somebody fed her stuff too rich for her?" she asked.

"Prolly" said Margie.

"Well, I'll make her some plain rice and keep an eye on her while you handle the back yard" said Myra. "There's ibuprofen in our bathroom if you want it."

Margie stomped outside. Ginny made pasta primavera as Myra coaxed rice into Narnia, then combed her slowly, an activity that always put Narnia into a trance-like state. Myra sang the tune she'd heard on NPR from an album of "songs just for dogs", a single line repeated over and over in exuberant approval, "You're a good dog, yes you are!" It never failed to calm Narnia completely.

After dinner, Myra stood and said "Well, my darling 16-year-old, I'm not Allie but how about if we go find an abandoned parking lot and you can practice driving around it for an hour?" Margie lit up.

"Can I please go?" said Gillam.

Margie was torn between the joy of leaving him behind vs. rubbing his face in it in person. Myra said to him "No teasing about anything that happens, not ever" and that decided it for Margie. He could ride in the back seat and eat his heart out.

"I'll stay home with Narnia" said Ginny. Narnia's stomach ailment had cleared and she did her best to convey her strong preference to go in the car, but once again humans failed to comprehend any form of basic communication.

When they got home, Margie was in flying spirits. Allie and Edwina had stopped by and got to hear a detailed description of every shift and maneuver. Ginny, in the kitchen, whispered to Myra "How did it go, really?"

"Whatever car we get her -- front and side airbags, as a minimum" said Myra gloomily.

Over tea, Allie told them she and Edwina had decided to go to Chicago to visit Edwina's family over Christmas vacation. "We'll leave on solstice and be gone a week" said Allie, looking at the kids. "I'll miss you something awful, but I need to meet her people and have a chance to get to know them the way she's gotten to know you."

"Will you be here for my birthday?" asked Gillam.

"Of course" said Allie.

"Carly's family is going to Chicago, too" said Gillam sadly. "Well, Lake Forest, near there."

Margie was fighting back tears, which startled Allie until Margie said "And Jaime, he's spending the holidays with his dad in Southern California!"

"Chris and Sima are going to Idaho for a few days, too" Myra said to Ginny. "Maybe we should plan a trip as well."

"NOT Denver!" said Margie with a choke in her voice.

"No, I meant someplace new and different" reassured Myra.

"New York!" said Margie and "Hawaii!" said Gillam simultaneously. Myra gaped at them as Ginny began laughing.

Myra said "We'll have to find people to replace us cooking dinner at the shelter -- I could offer to pay double-time for volunteers, I guess."

"I'd rather not go to a place that'll be overrun with rich tourists" said Ginny. Myra leaned over to whisper to her, and Ginny's eyes got big.

"You think we can still get -- booking?" she said.

"We can try. And I updated all our passports last year" said Myra. "We'll need shots, though."

"Where? Where?" demanded Margie.

"Let's wait and see if we can pull it off" said Ginny teasingly.

"Oh, please, just give us a hint!" pleaded Margie.

Myra said, "Well, it's a place where Annie Dillard has been."

Margie wheeled on Gillam. "You've read all her books, where's she been?"

Gillam, flushed with his sudden expert status, said slowly, "Tinker Creek, but that's not it. Uh...she lived in a cabin on Puget Sound for a while -- "

Margie turned back to almost yell at Myra, "TELL us that's not it!"

"They said shots and passports, remember?" said Gillam. "Lemme think...Oh -- OH! I know!" He whispered to Margie, and she raised both hands in excitement.

"Antarctica!" she shouted.

"Whoa, hang on" said Myra. "First of all, she wrote about the South Pole but I don't think she ever went herself. And yes, I'd love to go but it will take more planning than we can do in three weeks. We'll have to save that for another winter break -- maybe next year."

Margie said to Gillam "Where else?"

Gillam headed for the bookshelves, Margie trailing after him.

"Which book is it in?" whispered Ginny.

"Teaching a Stone to Talk" answered Myra. "But it's not on the shelves, it's on my nightstand, as it happens." She and Ginny giggled together.

"Iguanas!" Ginny whispered reverently.

"Boobies!" answered Myra. Allie and Edwina joined them in the ensuing hysterics.

Two days later, the second child of Ginny's nephew Nate and his wife Elyse was born. They named her Navit. After celebrating her arrival at dinner that night, Myra and Ginny announced the family was booked to fly to Ecuador on December 20th and leave from there for a four-day tour of the Galapagos.

Margie and Gillam both went out of their minds. Margie said "The seals there, they actually swim with you, come up and touch you!" "The pictures I take will be unbelievable!" said Gillam. Myra explained they'd be spending nights aboard ship, and Margie would have to share a cabin with Gillam because space was so tight.

"I don't care!" said Margie, dancing around the room. She stopped suddenly and said "Where's my cell, I gotta tell Jaime!" She rushed upstairs. Half a minute later, Gillam followed her.

"Thank you, mama, for giving us a glorious life full of opportunities" Myra said mockingly to Ginny.

"So glad you noticed" grinned Ginny.

7 December 2004

Ginny was in day two of Painterland on this particular canvas. Myra didn't usually keep track, but it seemed to her that Ginny's output was higher this year than it had been in previous years. Art critics (whom Ginny refused to read about her own work) had names for Ginny's shifts in theme and style, arguing between themselves about frickin' bullshit, as Allie put it, and jostling to come up with names for her "periods". She'd been in what they called her "nonconcrete recherché" period for almost two years now.

One thing Myra could say is that right before Ginny made a shift, she went into overdrive, burning out her jets as Myra thought of it. For a moment, she wished someone was studying her poetry that carefully and analyzing its origins, its influence, its chronology. Then she remembered how furious she had been at some of the stuff written about Skene, and she withdrew her wish.

The kids were in bed, and she was about to get one more bottle of water into Ginny before heading to the sack herself when the phone rang. The main line, not the cell. It was a Denver area code, so she answered it on the second ring.

"Myra?" said Michael's voice. "It's Michael, your brother-in-law. Are you still up? I need to speak with Ginny."

"Oh god, Michael. Is everyone -- is Cathy all right?" Myra sat down heavily.

"Yes. It's not her, not the boys or their families" he said.

David. Oh please, not David prayed Myra.

"Helen...she died this evening. Suddenly. Do you want to tell Ginny or -- I said I would -- "

But Ginny was there, brush in hand, sweat glistening on a face drained of color, reaching for the phone.

"She's here, Michael. I'll talk to you again later" said Myra, handing the receiver to Ginny and taking her brush as she stood beside her, letting Ginny lean on her. She didn't see Ginny's face but she felt two small percussions in her body, which she later thought must have been relief followed by -- what? Any death of someone you've known forever is nonsensical, a sudden hole in the fabric of reality. What was it like to lose your mother when you did not love her?

She listened to Ginny's questions and incomplete sentences, gleaning what she could. She heard Ginny say "No, I'll come tonight. If there's a flight this late -- I'll be there as soon as I can. Tell Daddy that. Is he -- " Then, "All right, don't interrupt him talking with Rabbi Mark. But if he wants to call me, tell him to use my cell number, I'll keep it on." After another minute, she said "I'll call you back -- is this Cathy's cell? Okay -- when I have a reservation, but I'll get a cab from the airport, don't send -- I mean it, Michael, I'd just as soon take a cab. Okay, thanks."

She clicked the phone off without remembering to let Myra talk to Michael again. Didn't matter at the moment, thought Myra. She sat down on the daybed and pulled Ginny beside her, covering her with the quilt there. Ginny folded her legs over Myra's lap and looked into her face, her eyes clear blue and wide.

"She -- Daddy wasn't with her. He'd gone to Cathy and Michael's for Chanukah -- the whole family was there, for dinner and lighting candles with little Elena and the new baby. At the last minute, mother begged off, said she wasn't feeling well and she didn't want to pass on anything to the baby. Daddy said she didn't look well." Ginny paused, and Myra thought she was keeping herself from saying "But she never does look really well any more."

"He called before Elena went to bed, to see if mother wanted to say goodnight to her. When Helen didn't answer, he left for home then. Not really worried, Michael said, but it was -- she would answer the phone, she always answered."

Ginny paused again, her muscles stiffening. "When Daddy got home, there was a -- pool of blood in the carpet beside her chair in the living room. And a trail of blood to the bathroom, that one by the front door. She was lying on the floor beside the toilet. Blood everywhere. The paramedics said she was vomiting it up, that the ulcer in her stomach ruptured or maybe an aneurysm, I don't know for sure what to call it...instead of dialing for help, she went to the bathroom. Passed out from loss of blood, and...died without waking up. Probably still bleeding into her stomach." Ginny's voice was thick with revulsion.

"Daddy -- he moved her but she was -- clearly gone. He didn't do CPR. The cops are there, still. They have to make sure it really was an accident, I guess. Michael said Cathy told him mother knew about the ulcer, she's had -- she's been passing blood in her stool. They told her she had to not drink any more, not even wine. Not a drop. And Cathy thought she wasn't. She's been -- hard to live with for a week or two. If Michael calls it hard to live with, it must have been -- hellish." Ginny's lips tightened. "Michael didn't say, but it's obvious -- she stayed home tonight to drink. A chance to be away from their scrutiny for a few hours."

Ginny trailed off. Myra squeezed her and said "How are you, my love? What's going on inside?"

Ginny's eyes stayed wide. "I don't know. I'm worried about Daddy. It must have been -- unspeakable to find. And -- I'm not surprised. I'm not surprised she's dead, and I'm not surprised it was this nasty. Is that terrible of me? I don't feel like crying, Myra. Not for myself."

"It's not terrible of you, no. It's honest."

“I need to get there, I need to be with Daddy. Let’s call the airlines --”

“Wait, Ginny. What about me, and the kids? Do you want me to go wake them up and us to go with you?”

“They might as well sleep. Which means you’ll have to stay here with them. You could all fly in tomorrow morning, is that all right to ask you? You’ll be the one telling them about their bubbe, is that fair?”

“Yes. I agree with you about letting them sleep. But you won’t be getting any sleep on the plane --”

“I wouldn’t sleep anyhow, Myra. Oh, and Allie and Edwina...” Ginny picked up the phone and dialed their number. When they didn’t answer, she left a toneless message, saying something had come up, everybody at home was okay but could they please call back as soon as they got this. She did the same with Chris and Sima. She sat with the phone in her hand, hefting it for a minute, and said “Will you try to get me a flight? I should go pack.”

“Are you sure? No processing needed at the moment?”

Ginny thought about it. “I’m okay. Thank god I have you.”

“Back atcha. Okay, go pack. Take some Rescue Remedy when you go in the bathroom.”

Myra got online and came up with a flight in two hours. After booking a seat for Ginny, she went on searching and made reservations for her and the kids on an 8:00 a.m. flight. It would mean getting them up at dawn, but she didn’t want to leave Ginny alone any longer than she necessary.

She made a quick list at her desk, while her brain was still clear, then went to the bedroom where Ginny was just closing her suitcase. Myra told her about her ticket, and Ginny picked up the phone on the nightstand to call a cab.

“I can take you” said Myra, “I’ll leave a note for the kids and be back -- “

“No, Myra, honestly, I’m okay. I don’t think I’m coasting on autopilot, I’m actually all right. I mean, yes, I want you with me, don’t take it that way.” Ginny kissed her gently. Her eyes were looking better.

“Let’s go through your carry-on, make sure there’s nothing they’re going to confiscate” said Myra. She emptied her pockets of cash into Ginny’s billfold, added her cell phone charger to the bag, and was about to make her some tea when they heard a discrete honk out front.

“Shit, that was fast” said Ginny. Myra felt scared suddenly. She walked her to the door, kissing her urgently and watching her pull her roller bag behind her to the taxi driver, who had popped his trunk. After they drove off, Myra returned to her desk to begin going down the list.

Lying on the edge was Ginny’s brush, thick with paint. Myra picked it up and used a kleenex to scrub where it had touched the wood. She walked to the table beside Ginny’s easel and picked up the palette as well. Then, for the first time in her life, she looked at one of Ginny’s unfinished paintings.

Shock reverberated through her. It was not at all what she expected. One third of the canvas seemed nearly complete, layers of pale color in a pattern reminiscent of the interior of a wave. It was as compelling as all Ginny’s work was, full of meaning that was not verbal, even in Myra’s hyper-verbal brain. Another portion, less than a third, was like a crude parody of the completed section -- just a few swaths of what must be a base color, almost geometric but -- well, the word for it was ugly. The remaining portion of the canvas, in five or six discrete areas, not all continguous, was some kind of interim stage.

This meant Ginny worked in fragments, going from section to section. It meant she really started off with not much at all, some sort of rudimentary idea that remained occupying the canvas for a long time. It was as if she felt her way to creating the final vision. This is not how Myra had imagined it, ever. But once the initial surprise left her, it made sense. How else to turn what was surely three-dimension and alive in Ginny’s mind into a two-dimensional static hint of what she saw?
And Myra’s first own drafts were so hackneyed she tended to throw them out, once the second draft was in place. But Ginny had to build on top of her drafts, one after the other.

She felt an ache for Ginny in her throat. It was like desire, but more intense. She would never really know Ginny -- however much they shared, she couldn’t comprehend how Ginny did what she did. Yet she wanted to, with all her being.

Tears pricked at her eyes. She didn’t know what to do with the canvas, to keep it safe and fresh, except to leave it. She turned the easel around, however, so it was not on view from outside or any other room. It felt vulnerable to her. She did the best she could to clean Ginny’s brush and palette, and put lids back on all the tubes of paint. She scrubbed her hands, then returned to Ginny’s studio and made sure the gecko mister was full of clean water. She mixed fruit paste with their Reptivite and put it in their habitat, in case they ran out of crickets in the next few days. She turned off the lights in Ginny’s studio -- the gecko world was on its own light timer -- and, reluctantly, left Ginny’s world.

She cleaned Narnia’s bowls, filled them with fresh kibble and water, and returned to her desk to leave a message with the pet-sitter who checked on Narnia when they were only gone for a couple of days. She asked the woman to come get Narnia tomorrow and take her to the doggie hotel for a longer stay. She also called the doggie hotel and arranged for Narnia’s visit, leaving her credit card number.

She walked outside and turned off the pool and hot tub heaters. She set the alarm system for a random lights-on sequence, then called the security company to explain they’d be gone for the next few days, at least. She was about to go into the bedroom and pack when the phone rang.

“I’m waiting to board and I was missing you so much” said Ginny. “Are you still up?”

“Oh, yeah, I don’t think I’ll sleep either” said Myra. “Wanna talk?”

“Maybe half an hour before they call us, I think” said Ginny.

Myra wanted to ask her about the canvas, but she decided it would be better in person.

Ginny said “Listen, tell Margie she can wear her Armani jacket and the Ralph Lauren skirt to the funeral, it’s understated enough, but not that Versace top. She needs to wear a plain black shirt, preferably long-sleeved and with a collar. And not the high-heeled boots -- something with a flat heel. Gillam has his good black suit, that will work for him.”

Myra made a note on her pad. She would get very tired before this night was over.

“But remind her, them both, about kriah -- they need to either wear something they will be willing to tear or they need to bring a ribbon they can tear. You, too.”
Myra made another note.

“Tell Gillam to leave his camera at home. And, Myra? I forgot to ask you. I think I want to sit the full seven days of shiva. I did for Bubbe, and it will be important to Daddy. But I won’t if you need me to come home with you earlier. We can’t keep the kids out of school a week.”

“We’ll stay through Sunday with you -- they’ll miss two days of school, and we’ll have the weekend there. I think you should do whatever you need, sweetheart. We’ll be fine” said Myra. “I just realized, I should rent a car at the airport, we’ll need it.” She made another note.

“I know Daddy said the reason he was staying in Denver is because of Nate’s kids, how little they are and he gets to see them a lot. But I”m wondering if this will change his mind, make him more open to moving to Seattle.” Ginny’s voice was not quite normal, though Myra couldn’t think of how it was different.

Myra said, without planning the words in advance, “David is the only parent left for me, you and Allie. We’re rapidly becoming the oldest generation.”

“Oh god, Myra. I’m not ready.”

“Me neither.”

They sat in silence for a while. Well, Myra’s end was silent. Airports are wells of noise pollution, and it poured over the line to her.

“I called Cathy in the cab. I talked to Daddy briefly. He sounded like he was still in shock.”

“This just sucks, Ginny. It’s bad enough to have her die suddenly, but the circumstances -- listen, there are services who specialize in cleaning up blood. The police can give you a recommendation, they use them after traumas. I don’t want you or any member of your family trying to do clean-up, hire it out, okay?”

“I’ll get it arranged in the morning. Daddy is at Cathy and Michael’s for tonight, so I’m going to sleep there, too.”

“Where will shiva be?”

“Not sure. Daddy also didn’t know yet if an autopsy is going to be required....Myra, I know I should be feeling compassion for her, it had to be a horrible way to die, even if she was completely drunk. But mostly I’m just mad.”

“I know what that’s like, Ginny.”

“And I don’t want Daddy blaming himself for not being there. He was not who made the decisions that led to her dying that way, and I can’t sit by and let him take on any responsibility for it.”

“But Ginny -- he has to figure that out for himself. I mean, yes, you can tell him you don’t believe he’s to blame. All the rest, though, he has to sort through. It will take time, longer than a week.”

“You -- this is like what you felt with Gil, how he died?”

“It’s similar in a couple of ways. I keep thinking of that Judy Grahn line, ‘Some die slow and some die quick.’ We all die, but when somebody does things that hurry it along -- I think every individual has to make sense of it for herself. Whenever David realizes he’s experiencing relief, too, you know the guilt is going to chew him and spit him out. But it will be cleansing, in the long run. Don’t try to protect him from it.”

They had another period of silence. Ginny said “What time does your plane get in, again?”

“We’ll be there in time for lunch. I wish it was sooner.”

“Me too. The graveside service is set for 5:00.”

“Ginny, I just realized -- where will we be staying? I mean, tomorrow night?”

“I don’t know. If Daddy goes home, I want to be there with him. We can figure that out after you get here, we can rent a motel room at the last minute if need be.”

There was a loud announcement very close to Ginny, and she said “That’s me, angel. I’ll call you and leave a message on your cell voice mail if there’s anything you need to know before you get here. Just in case you do go to sleep. I love you.”

“Love you back. I’m coming up behind you, Ginny Bates.”

“Our children are so blessed to have you as their mother. Bye, Myra.”

Myra got back online and arranged for car rental, printing out the receipt and folding it with her list. The phone rang again, and she answered it swiftly, saying “Ginny? Are you okay?”

“It’s me” said Allie. “I got up to pee and noticed the light blinking on the machine. Where’s Ginny?”

Myra told her everything. When she was done, Allie said “We’re coming with you. Even if Edwina has to fly back tomorrow night, she says. Can you add us onto your reservation?”

“I’ll call you back if I can’t. Otherwise, you want to meet us there? Here’s the info.”

When she hung up, she cleaned out the fridge of anything that would go bad in four days and carried it to the trash. She went into her bedroom and packed, starting to feel a little loopy. She took a bath and decided she had time for half an hour’s nap. But once she was lying in the dark, she missed Ginny too much to drop off. She dressed, made a quick cheese and egg pie, and walked upstairs to wake her children and deliver them a blow.

Copyright 2008 Maggie Jochild.

1 comment:

letsdance said...

My heart aches on both sides of my chest, Maggie. How can that be?

You capture all the love and meaning in everything that happens. Bless you!