Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Another installment of my Great American Lesbian Novel (in progress), Ginny Bates. If you are new to reading GB, go to the section in the right-hand column labeled Ginny Bates to read background and find out how to catch up.

Into February 2013

Ginny began calling her sister every morning at breakfast, as she ate fruit and yogurt, sipped tea, and looked at the light coming in the front windows past her rosebushes. She referred to with Myra as her "face the day" call, meaning Cathy's day, not hers. While she was painting, she set her alarm to go off as a reminder. After a week of it, Myra discovered they would often still be on the phone when she woke up and shuffled into the kitchen: Cathy was cramming her need for sharing and deep contact into that hour or so each day. Myra asked Ginny how long she would keep it up, and Ginny said, with her eyes dark blue, "As long as she needs it. I need it, too."

"I'm glad" said Myra.

"Is this how you were with Gil after your mom died?"

"Not quite. Gil was a guy, conditioned to see phone conversations as practical, not emotional conduits. Plus I was, we both were, a lot younger. And...I thought I had a lifetime to talk with him. We were going to be old coots together." Myra felt grief well up in her. After all this time, it still hurt that much.

"My birthday is in two weeks..." began Ginny.

Myra laughed. "You don't even have to ask, if she'll consider moving here I'm totally for it."

Ginny looked amazed. "That wasn't what I was going to ask. But -- okay, I'll bring it up. In a while, not just now. She's still trying to make basic sense of things. What I was going to ask is, I know we were planning to visit Austin for research the first week in February, then back here for my birthday. I was going to suggest either we go to Denver or she come here for my birthday. If we do the former, I doubt all our friends and kids will join us."

"Whatever you and she want" said Myra. "Listen, I got an e-mail from Gillam -- he and Jane, for sure, want to come this weekend. I don't know about Carly yet, but I'll write him individually. I think they're scared shitless about the apparent mortality of our generation."

"They should be" said Ginny grimly. "So am I."

A few days later, the phone rang late while Myra was at her desk, close to midnight. She answered it without looking at the caller ID. It was Cathy, saying in a fragile voice, "Oh, please tell me I didn't wake you up."

"You didn't, I'm at my desk. But it would have been fine if you had. How are you, sister of mine?"

"...Not able to sleep. I wondered if Ginny was around..."

"She went to bed two hours ago, but I'll go get her -- "

"No, don't do that, Myra, you know how she is when you wake her up before she's had a REM cycle. I'll just wait until morning..."

"If that was a good option, you wouldn't have called. Listen, I know I'm not Ginny, but I could try channeling her. I'd really like to hear what's up right now" said Myra.

There was a long silence. Myra could hear Cathy's breathing, not quite even. Eventually Cathy said "He liked to go to sleep with the TV on. I'd do my evening ritual in the bathroom, lotion, hair brushing, you know the routine." (Myra did not.) "Then I'd walk through the house, turning off lights and making sure everything was locked up. When the boys were little, I'd look in on them. By the time I got to bed, he'd be asleep. I'd turn the volume down slowly, because if I just switched it off, he woke up. Eventually it was on mute, and after another minute of that, I could click off the picture and he'd keep sleeping. When I lay down beside him, he'd -- " She began crying hopelessly.

"He loved you with every fiber of his being, Cathy. Everybody on earth should have the kind of love you two shared." Myra wanted to hang up and go crawl into Ginny's arms.

After a while, Cathy could talk again. "I've been trying the shows he watched to go to sleep, but they don't work for me. Too much anger, and all the commercials are selling drugs -- a lot of them for heart disease."

"Yeah, TV is full of land mines. So was music for me, I had to be really careful about which albums I put on after I lost someone whose memory and past were completely linked to mine. Instead, how about if you tell me stories about good times you had together, or bad times that turned into good. Whatever comes into your head."

"You sure, Myra? I don't want -- "

"I really want to hear them, I'm sure. I stay up late, you know that. And I'm an hour earlier than you, which works to our advantage. Think of me as your late night talk radio host."

Cathy actually laughed. She said "I was thinking today about this terrible camping trip we took with the boys before they started school. Did you ever hear about when the skunk got in our tent?"

"Oh god, no. Tell me."

Cathy called again three nights later, while Myra was watching a movie with Carly. She whispered her regrets to him and went to her study. After that, two or three times a week Cathy went to sleep by telling stories to Myra. At lunch, Myra and Ginny would compare notes.

"I don't see how she's getting enough sleep, is the only part that worries me" said Myra.

"She's taking a long nap in the middle of the day. When it's safe to lie down, I guess. She has dinner with friends or Noah's family almost every night, so she knows she's got human contact available after the nap. Her doctor has offerer her sleeping pills but she doesn't trust them. I sent her a tea blend a few days ago, we'll see if that helps."

Myra pulled Ginny into a hug. "Did you ask her about living here yet?"

"I did" replied Ginny. "She was pleased, I could tell. She said she'd come for long visits, but it was bad enough Wolf was having to grow up without his zayde, she didn't want him to lose his bubbe, too." Wolf was Noah and Shana's young son. Myra had been startled by his first name until Ginny reminded her that Ze'ev was Hebrew for Wolf. Ginny continued "She is coming for my birthday, though. Which reminds me, I told her I'd get the tickets -- apparently Michael always did that for them."

"Then I'm going to finalize an invitation and send it out to whatever list you create" said Myra. They headed for the computers.

Cathy came two days before Ginny's birthday and was given the back bedroom. Margie and Frances drove up early Friday morning after Frances' work shift and were given Carly's bedroom, after prior consultation with him. Carly, Jane and Gillam arrived Friday afternoon, just as the challah finished baking and a carrot cake made by Cathy with Helen's prized recipe went into the oven. Myra had seven live lobsters in one of the galvanized tubs full of ice water in the storage room -- she said one was for Ginny all by herself -- but she balked at being the one to kill them. Ginny always expressed disbelief at this scruple in Myra, when she was so willing to eat meat in other forms and said she would be the slaughterer, if need be, of cows and pigs.

"It's having to plunge a knife into the head of something looking at me" said Myra. Usually Ginny had to do the deed, but Gillam said "No, it's your birthday and shabbos to boot, I'll say prayers and do the killing."

After cleaning, the lobsters were roasted on the outside grill with cedar plank salmon from Lake Quinault, a variety of mussels, clams, oysters, and a crab boil in the big pot on the stove. Myra had figured out the squash pancake recipe Ginny loved so much, and also made hand-shaped tortillas to dip into a huge bowl of garlicky guacamole.

When Ginny blew out the candles on her cake, Cathy said "Every year, after Mother would blow out the candles, Michael would lean over to me and whisper 'They broke the mold when they made Helen -- smashed it methodically it into tiny pieces and buried it in quicklime, so that mistake could never be repeated.' I'd have to fight from going into hysterics."

"I remember that" marveled Ginny, "I used to wonder what he was saying to you." Her eyes filled with tears, and Cathy began crying. They held one another until Cathy was composed again, and Ginny handed her the knife, saying "You cut it. A giant piece for me, please."

Myra's gift for Ginny was an antique dry sink with multiple shelves and a copper well tarnished a dark green. The wood had been cruelly treated, painted more than once, but underneath a scrollwork of vines and blossoms could be seen. "Once you refinish it, I figure we can cover the top around the sink with tempered glass, so it can sit in the corner of your studio and survive paint spatters" said Myra. Ginny was enthralled. She, Carly, and Chris immediately surrounded the piece where it had been carried to the edge of the living room and began discussing stripping options. Sima couldn't stay away, either, when talk about whether to polish the copper came up.

The rest of the party stayed at the dining table, stealing swipes of cream cheese frosting from the cake and drinking tea or coffee. Frances pointed to Ginny's newest painting, hanging unframed as yet over the breakfast bar, and said "I know that's from Brazil, but it looks completely like Sicily to me, some coastal fishing town. I can imagine having a tiny restaurant there."

"How many paintings does she have for the DC show?" asked Gillam.

"19. Ginny's begun varnishing. We're flying to Washington on March 20th, the opening is that Friday, two days later. We still need a count from which of you want to go with, we need to buy the tickets soonish" said Myra.

Margie looked at Frances and said "I'll tell you tomorrow. 19, that's more than usual, right?"

"She hasn't had a show in well over a year, though she's been selling through catalogues here and there" said Myra. "She's overdue. And this will be the first major exhibition featuring her larger-sized canvases, so pricing has been tricky."

"If she sells all 19 -- " began Margie.

"She won't" said Myra.

"But if she did, after commission and costs, how much income will that be?" asked Margie. Gillam looked disturbed at Margie's prying, and Cathy was embarrassed. Myra looked around at Ginny, who was lying down on the floor inspecting underneath the dry sink and talking to Chris. She told the table "At least half a million."

"Holy crap" said Jane.

"A fifth of which will immediately go to the Feminist Fund" said Gillam defensively.

"We'll use every penny" said Myra calmly.

"Still -- doesn't she ever have qualms about, well, that kind of earning?" asked Margie.

Myra looked at her, then back at Ginny who was still not listening. "You should have that talk with her some time. But what I can tell you is that yes, of course, it's a constant struggle for her to sort through the feelings she has an artist who sells her work. Her privilege. The only reason she was able to develop her ability, and exposure, to this level is because my own wealth gave her a cushion few painters ever know. She's extraordinarily gifted, and she's worked her ass off, but so have lots of other folks who've never been able to sell a painting or have much time to paint at all. And then there's being Jewish..."

"What about that?" asked Cathy sharply.

Myra said "You remember when Vivie and her sister Pauline came to visit Helen in Denver and we came for the weekend?" Myra said to Jane and Nika, "Vivie was Ginny's grandmother, her mother's mother. This was after her grandfather Nathan had died. Helen had a tea party where all her upper class friends from the Temple were there, and you kids were banished to a back room with a baby-sitter. We dressed up and made the rounds. Anyhow, at one point one of those friends of Helen's said something to the effect that it was a shame someone who was so 'aidel gepotchket' had become a luftmensch -- that someone raised in a genteel manner was now without a career or money" Myra translated. "From the tone, I knew they were hinting at her being a dyke, too, living off me. Vivie was offended, but her comeback was that Ginny knew how to sucker the goyishe kop, selling her work for more than it was worth. They all laughed in a nasty way. I turned around and saw that Ginny had heard every word, even though she was in another group. You can't win if you're a Jew -- if you don't sell your stuff, you're a failure, and if you do, you're a money-grubber. Ginny wouldn't agree to have a show for two years after that, until she sorted through the crap for herself."

There was silence after Myra finished. She looked around and saw that Ginny had been listening, after all. Ginny blew her a kiss, and Myra replied "Ich libe dich" with a grin. When she looked back at the table, Margie was chewing over this information and Carly was grinning. Cathy was looking past her at Ginny. Gillam, however, looked bothered. He folded and unfolded his hands in front of him, then said "Well, this is as good a time as any, I guess. I've got news that may affect my trip to DC."

Ginny stood up from the floor, recognizing his tone, and came to stand next to Myra's chair. He looked at them both as he said "I heard from -- my father. Our father, I guess I should say. He wrote me this week."

"What the fuck?" shouted Margie. "You didn't tell me right away?"

"I wanted to do it in family" said Gillam. "I knew we'd all be here together."

"Who is he?" demanded Margie, leaning forward angrily.

"His name is Mark Friedman. He lives in Washington, DC. From his job description, I think he's a lobbyist. He's been married once, is divorced, never had kids. I mean, aside from us. He's scared we're after his money, sounds like, even as he made it clear he'd googled my name and figured out I was the child of the famous Ginny Bates. He didn't mention you, Mama, I'm sorry" Gillam said to Myra apologetically.

Ginny was leaning heavily on Myra now. "My god. He really exists."

"Flesh and blood" said Gillam a little unhappily. "I made it clear my main interest was to get a more up-to-date medical history, and to find out my -- our lineage. He said he wants to meet me in person before handing that over. Well, us, he said he wanted to meet you too, Margie."

"A lobbyist!" said Margie with disdain. "For what?"

"Something to do with overseas manufacturing. He was a lawyer originally, but switched to what he called the private sector during the Bush administration" said Gillam.

"Oh my fucking god, he's a Bushite?!!" cried Margie. "No fucking way am I meeting that fucker, then." Chris was laughing her head off.

"You don't have to" said Gillam. "Anyhow, he's going to be in DC over Passover, which is the weekend after your opening and during my spring break, so if I went with you and stayed a few extra days, I could see him then. I wanted to talk it over with you all first."

"Did he send you a photo?" asked Margie, in spite of herself.

"Not yet. I sent one of all of us from last summer. I mean, all of us, with names and relationships on the back. If he says anything at all off plumb, he can forget about meeting me, either" said Gillam.

Myra looked up into Ginny's shocked face. "Happy birthday" she murmured.

Ginny heard her and met her eyes. She looked back at Gillam and said "I...You should do whatever you want, son. I'd love for you to come to the opening and...I don't think I want to meet him, if that's all right with you. I don't want to invite him to my show, either -- can you understand that?"

"I agree" said Gillam. "He's not part of my family, he's -- "

Margie said "Mr. Jamba Juice. Oh, god. Well, you have to take your camera -- no, a video camera, I want to see him in action. Count me in for the trip to DC, I'll have spring break, too. I want to see the show, Mom" she said self-righteously. So much for conferring with Frances, thought Myra.

"Me too" said Carly. Allie said "I'll be on book tour most of that month but I do have the week around Easter off. If we're talking about being there for a week, I'd like to do more research. For my next book." Edwina nodded at her. Chris said "Well...I want to do some research, too. Holdings at the Smithsonian, for one thing. Library of Congress. But only if Sima can go."

All eyes turned to Sima, who said "I think this one I can't miss. I'll take off without pay, I guess."

Ginny's hand squeezed Myra's shoulder, and Myra imperceptibly raised her shoulder in reply: Yes, we'll cover them somehow. Myra pointed to the calendar on the refrigerator, and Margie carried it to the table. They settled on dates and Myra said she'd make reservations for them all. Ginny said to Cathy, "What about you?"

"I'll stay with you for at least another week, but I want to be home with Noah and his family for Passover" said Cathy with pain on her face. "It'll be dreadful, but worse than if I wasn't there."

Next year in Jerusalem thought Myra.

© 2008 Maggie Jochild

1 comment:

kat said...

This last week has been pretty cathartic for me, in terms of reading Ginny Bates.

I'm off to Seattle tomorrow for an opera workshop. Anything you need pictures of?