Saturday, March 21, 2009


Red begonia semperflorence

Here's 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.

Monday, 2 December, 2019

The vehicle Myra wound up renting was a Jeep Patriot, a name which caused her to grimace every time she heard it. It got better mileage than most of the behemoths which would handle rough terrain, and she liked being able to plug in her laptop from either the front or rear seat. She opted for the moonroof and a metallic green color. When she brought it home and Ginny came out to look at it, Ginny said “I guess we really are jeeping on.”

Myra remembered how that phrase had entered their private vocabulary, and felt a small shiver at the way time unravels itself.

Ginny drove Cathy to Sea-Tac just past dawn in the Volvo while Myra and Margie loaded the Jeep. It was raining, of course, adding to the misery of the morning. Allie had decided she couldn't bear to see them off. She and Edwina would be coming to Colville in a few days to stay for an indefinite time.

Chris made breakfast, feeding tidbits to Anthea whom she had allowed on the counter, much to the disgust of Margie's dogs. At 7:00, when Ginny had returned, they sat down to eat together. Margie had her bags in the hall. She was driving the Volvo behind them, planning to return once she got them settled in and commute back and forth every few days.

As they were washing the dishes and making one last check of the house, Gillam showed up with all five children. Their cheerful “Bye, we'll see you for Christmas” cries of the little ones helped Chris, if no one else. She hugged them and whispered in each ear. She also whispered something to Anthea. But Gillam broke down crying when she wrapped herself around him.

“What's wrong, Daddy?” said Charlie, tugging at his hand. “Why are you sad?”

“I'm going to miss Aunt Chris so much, it hurts me bad” he said. Suddenly all the small faces slid toward grief. Gillam said “Come on, we'll be late for school” and he mushed them out the back door, giving one last wave to Chris.

Margie walked her dogs home and met them in the carport. Chris lifted her fingers to the mezuzah on their front door facing and then kissed those fingers with closed eyes before settling in the front seat beside Myra. Ginny felt torn and finally whispered to Myra “I'm worried about Margie, but I want to be there for you, too.”

“Ride with her” said Myra. “I promise, if I start fading emotionally, I'll pull over.”

The back of the Jeep was crammed. Ginny put the cooler on the half of the back seat that was free, within read of Chris, and kissed them both before getting in beside Margie. Margie called out to Myra “Please, for god's sake, drive at least the speed limit, since I have to follow you.”

An hour outside of town, the highway made a wide curve on itself that gave a side view of Seattle, a blur of lights this time of day, framed by growing hills and a hint of the Sound beyond. Chris sucked in her breath and Myra realized she was crying.

“I'll pull over” offered Myra.

“No” choked out Chris. “No. I have to keep going.”

By the time they stopped for lunch just south of Colville, Myra felt utterly fatigued despite two Cokes handed to her by Chris from the cooler. She stretched beside the car a minute before following the others into the restaurant. After ordering, she leaned back in the booth and closed her eyes. That plus food helped. They filled their gas tanks and drove on through town. They had enough provisions for a couple of days, and Chris's appointment with the local oncologist who would oversee her hospice care wasn't until the following afternoon.

The small two-lane on the far side of the Columbia was dark but not shiny with ice, and a plow had been through here. After the turn-off, the road got progressively narrow until the last mile, there was only room for one vehicle. The gravel had washed out in places, leaving frosty slush. Myra kept one eye on her rearview mirror, making sure Margie didn't get bogged down in one of the mudholes. She backed into the yard up to the front stoop – there was nothing planted here, anyhow, and the driveway was barely distinguishable from the rest of the land around it.

When they walked into the house, the cold seemed deeper than outside. Myra could see her breath, and Ginny said to Chris “Where's your buffalo robe?”

“That duffel on top in the back seat” said Chris. Margie said “I left the woodbin stocked in here, we can get a fire started right away.”

“Let me do that” said Myra. “You turn on all the electric heaters, then start unloading, okay? Be careful of your step.”

Chris walked around with an expressionless face, touching walls and examining every cupboard, every corner. The fire caught easily and Myra pulled off her driving gloves to check that heat was actually emerging from the metal. Ginny had gone to help Margie once she draped Chris's robe over her shoulders, and Myra resumed her gloves to join them.

It didn't warm up much with the front door being open for the unloading, but even so, with boxes stacked against the walls and their body heat from exertion, it began to feel more habitable. Chris said to Margie “You did an amazing job. It looks way better than I could have imagined.”

“You picked the colors” said Margie, but she was pleased with herself. New sheets were on the beds, new towels on the shelf over the toilet, and the dining chairs around the butcher block table were of bright blond wood with wide, inviting seats. Ginny had packed three flowering house plants, and she put the African violet in the middle of the table. Chris took a second from her, a red begonia, and carried it into her bedroom to put on the nightstand.

Myra pushed Chris's chair near the stove and said “Sit down, supervise us, why doncha?” Chris grinned, a big grin, and said “Okay.” Ginny opened the carton labeled “Kitchen Immediate Use”, found the teakettle and filled it with water before putting it on the stove.

Margie opened the massive wet carrier which had ridden in the Volvo back seat and said “I'm going to hang this, okay?” It was the portrait of the six friends that Ginny had completed ten days earlier. Chris had asked to take it with them. Chris said “In my room, please. On the wall across from the window.” Ginny had to trail after Margie to make sure it was done properly.

Myra said “Do you want your room set up first, or should I do the kitchen?”

“Do the kitchen” said Chris. “I'm going to let Margie unpack my stuff.” She looked warm enough but her color was off, Myra thought. Myra asked “Are you feeling bad?”

“Memories” said Chris. “Plus my hip.”

One the painting was hung, Ginny unpacked her and Myra's personal belongings into the other bedroom. She put the third plant on their single nightstand, a forced yellow amaryllis. Chris stood stiffly and walked into her bedroom, finally deciding to sit on the portable toilet with its lid down as she directed Margie where to put her possessions. Margie's happy voice carried easily to Myra, trying to organize the kitchen. They would be on top of each other here.

She made a pot of tea first and carried mugs to the others. She took the large container of chicken stew she'd made the day before from the cooler and set it on the stove to slowly thaw. She unpacked the rest of the cooler, then didn't know what to do with it. Finally she carried it, along with two of the cartons already emptied, out to the Jeep. The cartons would serve as containers for bags of trash and of laundry, which they'd have to carry elsewhere.

Re-entering the cabin, it felt warm and like it could become familiar to her. She heard Margie say “What is this, in here?” and Chris reply “Don't open that. Give it to me.”

“My god, Aunt Chris, please tell me it's not a sex toy” said Margie, trying to cover her embarrassment with intrusive humor.

“It's not a sex toy” said Chris in an amused voice. “But it is private.” Myra heard a drawer open and shut.

Ginny came to the kitchen to refill her mug and said “That bed is as small as the one we had at first in the beach house. We'll be keeping each other warm from up close.”

Myra lowered her voice to say “I'll be sleeping with Chris as much as she wants me to, you know.”

“I know” said Ginny, trying to keep her smile but not quite succeeding. “Well, those electric heaters are starting to take some chill off the surfaces around them.”

“What should we do about compost?” asked Myra.

“I don't know. When I'm done with the bedroom, I guess I'll wander into that field out back and see if I can find a spot to dig up the ground and make something besides a lure for wild animals” said Ginny. “I should have brought straw or mulch.”

“We can get some when we go into town tomorrow” said Myra as Ginny left the kitchen.

An hour later, everything had found a place, and the other boxes plus luggage had to be stored in the Jeep as well. One end of the table had a clever shelf arrangement underneath, and Myra stashed her laptop there, plugging it into the outlet. A wall phone hung behind it with a splitter to accept her computer link.

Ginny had, at Myra's insistence, brought her folding easel and a suitcase full of painting gear. Chris emerged from her bedroom to sit by the stove again and said “You should put your easel in front of the sliding doors here, if the light's good there.”

“It'll block us going in and out by that door” said Ginny.

“Well, I won't mind if you don't” said Chris. Ginny erected her easel, then claimed the last empty kitchen cupboard for her painting supplies. Myra silently rearranged another cupboard, stacking plates and bowls, so she'd have room to stock a pantry once they went shopping.

They all jumped when the phone rang, loud and with a different tone that theirs at home. Margie answered it and carried the receiver to Chris on its long cord, saying “It's your niece.” Myra tried not to eavesdrop, but noticed the gladness in Chris's voice as she talked to Tina. She invited them out for dinner the following evening. Myra heard her say “Tell Ricky, we won't have any beer here” and listened to her long laugh at whatever Tina said in reply.

Margie hung up the phone for her and said “What shall we do now?”

Myra thought Chris could use a nap, but Chris said “I know we packed cards, does anybody know where they are?”

“In the kitchen, there's a cupboard with household items. Cards and chips both” said Myra.

“Just the cards” said Chris. “Let's play Hearts.” Chris was a menace at Hearts, always sticking someone else with the queen of spades.

“Let me make popcorn first” said Myra. She loaded it with butter and brewer's yeast, and carried napkins to the table with the bowl. The windows now had a sheen of condensation on the inside. It was getting warm enough to turn down the damper on the stove, she thought. But Chris had not yet her robe, so Myra would wait for that sign. She pulled off her Patagonia overshirt, down to just a long-sleeved jersey.

As they played, Chris intermittently lifted out comments from what was running through her head and shared them.

“The table we had was square, not a rectangle like this. Formica. It was more in the corner, and that wall by the door, there was a little shelf where Dad put his keys. Over it was the gun rack, with a knob for his hat.”

“Goddammit Margie, where did you pull that three of clubs from, I swear you're manufacturing cards!” said Ginny.

“Ma had a chair in the kitchen, and she'd sit there to shell beans or shuck corn. She had a radio on the counter she listened to all the time. Mostly religious stations. I used to love to listen to Paul Harvey, but if you hung out with her, you had to be doing something, cleaning or stirring. Something with your hands.”

“What kind of beans?” asked Myra.

“A lot of lima beans” said Chris.

“You don't like lima beans” pointed out Myra, grinning.

“I still eat fried bologna, though” said Chris. “One of the first things I made by myself at the stove, a fried bologna sandwich. On white bread with Miracle Whip.”

“With Kool-Aid?” asked Myra.

“Shasta root beer, if I was lucky” said Chris. “Except on my birthday, I could ask for real root beer, Hires, instead of Shasta.”

“It's a miracle either of you still have teeth in your heads” said Ginny. “Myra, it's your lead.”

“Those sliding doors at the back were there then, too, which was a novelty back then. Ma complained about how they let in the cold. But I used to spend a lot of time sitting more or less where you are Myra, keeping watch.”

Myra waited half a minute before prodding. “Keeping watch for what?”

“Dad chopped wood back there. In the winter, snow'd be up three feet high around the place he kept clear, the chopping block and the stacked cords. He'd fill a coffee can with beer -- you remember Arbuckle Coffee, My?”

“Mama used to joke about having the Arbuckle thumps” laughed Myra.

“I remember those yellow labels, with the flying angel. Anyhow, he'd fill a can two-thirds with beer and then drop in five shotglasses of whiskey. Homemade boilermakers. He carried that out to a snowdrift beside the wood and push it down into the snow – nature's cooler. He'd pull out a big log, split it into quarters, then split each of those, gather the kindling in a bucket, and go to the coffee can, scooping out a dipper of drink. He had one of those folding metal dippers, you know, like Boy Scouts carry. He drank it down in one gulp, picked up his axe, and did another log. After half an hour, he'd strip off everything on top until he was bare-chested, but even so, you could see the sweat on his back.” Chris paused, then added “It's weird, to remember him as young. Younger than Margie here.”

Card play had slowed to a crawl. As Chris stared at her hand, trying to make sense of it, Myra asked again “Keep watch for what?”

“When he reached the end of the can. He'd lift it out of the snow and pour the last cupful. That's when I was supposed to tell Ma. She'd get a second one ready and carry it out. Originally, I was supposed to take it to him, but I tripped once and spilled it. He broke my arm. After that, when Ma took out the second can, I'd put on my coat and cap and sneak out the front door, disappear for a couple of hours.”

Into the silence that followed, Chris said “Dad kept pemmican on the counter, I wonder if we can find that around here?” Her eyes were intense, suddenly focused on Myra.

“What kind of meat was it?”

“Buffalo or beef. With dried huckleberries. I'd hook a couple of strips and put them in my coat pocket when I headed out” said Chris.

“We'll look for it” said Myra.

“It won't be at the health food store” grinned Chris. “I'll ask Tina.” Her niece was assistant manager at the local supermarket.

Margie had put a handful of popcorn into her mouth and was meticulously wiping her fingers. “Aunt Chris...your arm. Did it hurt?”

“Well, yeah” said Chris.

“Did you get a cast?”

“Yup. And that drive in to the hospital was pretty tense, let me tell you. But I'd already learned the rule, that I was never to talk to white people in charge. Keep my mouth absolutely shut, or else. Dad would tell 'em I was a tomboy, with a roll of his eyes that always got a laugh from other men. And he said I didn't talk much.” She turned to Myra. “Nobody ever compared notes, like you wrote in that poem of yours. I mean, once I got to school, I was always in trouble because I talked during class, I made jokes and comments, they couldn't shut me up. The worst that happened there was maybe a little paddling, and being funny got me friends. So clearly I wasn't this mute little Indian girl who couldn't pull off being a boy. But I was under the radar, you know?”

“I know my version of it” said Myra. She was watching Margie's face, and was briefly confused by the spasm of irritation she read there, until she realized Chris must have once again passed her the queen of spades in their three-card exchange.

“Chris, you wanna add Hires to the grocery list?” said Myra, ignoring Ginny's sudden glare.

“Ah. Maybe one. But no, it's not on the hepatic enrichment program” said Chris. “I used to like to pretend root beer was like real beer, that I could get drunk from it. I wanted to be old enough to get drunk. I could get enough sips from Dad and his friends to get pretty smashed. But I wanted my own bottle of beer.”

Ginny's face had an expression of reminiscence that startled Myra. “I remember once pretending my water was gin” she said. “What did getting to be drunk mean for you?”

“Everyone would be afraid of me and not mess with me” said Chris.

“Yeah” said Ginny softly.

“You really want to scare the shit out of white people, though, be 5 foot eleven by age 16, with shoulders like a linebacker and enough speed on board to make your hair crackle” said Chris with a giggle.

“I wouldn't have been scared of you” said Margie with a break in her voice that embarrassed her.

Yes, you would thought Myra.

Chris considered her hand again. “The other thing I liked to pretend was that someday I'd have a real family. Maybe I'd find out I was adopted. And a group of strangers would claim me, love me, give me a new name. That one came true. And here I am, in this house with you. It's better than my best fantasy.”

It was for Margie's benefit, Myra knew, but it hit her too like a hammer blow. She reeled again when Ginny said “My real mother's name was Gwendolyn. In my daydream, I mean. She had loved my father but couldn't keep me, so I went to live with him and his wife, my evil stepmother Helen. Gwendolyn looked just like me, and sometimes she was a movie star, sometimes a stewardess who traveled around the world.”

Stewardess?” said Margie in disbelief.

“It was exotic then” said Ginny, and Myra nodded. Ginny played a six of spades, forcing Margie to eat her queen, and another spasm of irritation crossed Margie's face.

“I used to pretend my mother worked at the make-up counter at Nordstrom's” said Margie. Myra noted that single “mother”. “She would pick me up from school after work and we'd drive through McDonalds for dinner, eating fries and McNuggets in front of the TV. She wore dresses and dated guys who played golf.”

Ginny burst out laughing. “You got so screwed, you poor little thing” she cackled.

Chris had finally shucked her robe, pushing it over the back of her chair. They all jumped again as the phone rang. Ginny reached back and answered it.

“Hey, Allie. Yeah, we're all settled in, playing cards and telling stories.” She held the phone away from her mouth a minute to say to Margie “You listed this phone in your own name?”

“I had to present ID and they wouldn't – it's a long story” said Margie.

Ginny handed the phone over to Chris, who carried it back to her chair by the stove. Myra said to Margie “Speaking of chopping wood, is that something we'll need to do?”

“No, I got it already split” said Margie. “But I should go carry in another load. It's already starting to get dark.”

“I was thinking I'd steam that broccoli to go with the stew for dinner” said Ginny.

“And hot rolls, it's a hot bread kind of evening” said Myra, returning the cards to their box.

“I'll do it” said Ginny. “Why don't you fire up your laptop and see how well it works here.”

They all went to bed early. Myra offered to sleep with Chris but she said she wanted to see what it was like to be in her childhood bedroom alone. Margie decided to stay on the futon rather than go to her motel. Myra noticed she'd brought a portable DVD player with her and had it plugged into an extension cord next to her pillow.

“Are you going to take a bath?” Myra asked Ginny.

“Not yet. I'd rather do it in the morning, when I can warm up as I dry by the fire” said Ginny.

“Oh. Good idea. I'll wait, too.” They shut the bedroom door, Ginny commenting “As if it will block any sound. I just hope that little heater is up to the task.”

“Remember how cold it was at the house near Trinity?” said Myra.

“We kept warm” said Ginny with a grin. “We have that same down comforter with us.”

They kissed but Myra didn't want to make love to Ginny, not with Margie a few feet away. They slept quickly. Some time later, Myra woke up and had a long minute trying to figure out where she was. Her hand, outside the comforter, was uncomfortably chilled and she thought perhaps that was what had awakened her. Then she heard a sound from what must be the kitchen, the clank of metal on metal. She slid gently from Ginny's side, shivering at the air which hit her skin, and dressed quickly in sweats and wool socks.

When she opened the bedroom door, blessed heat rolled in at her and she left the door open. Margie was sprawled on her back, headphones still on, the DVD screen bright blue. Myra reached over to turn off the DVD as she edged around the futon. The light over the stove was on, and she could see Chris standing in front of the kitchen window.

Myra put her hand on Chris's shoulder, covered by buffalo robe, and whispered “Can't sleep?”

“Nightmare” said Chris briefly. “You want some hot chocolate?”

“Yes” said Myra, turning to stir the pan of milk on the stove before it scalded.

“I miss her like this fucking ache in my bones” said Chris, not moving from the window. “She should be here, she should be hearing all this. I never told her enough.”

“Why not?” asked Myra. She put back the Hershey's Chris had set on the counter and got out the tin of Amsterdam cocoa. She found her whisk and began adding sugar as Chris answered.

“I can't figure it out. It felt sorta like I was asking so much of her anyhow, putting up with my – shit, that I couldn't ask her to hear about where it all began. I think now that was probably a shit stupid way to do things” said Chris. She finally turned to face Myra. “Do you think Allie tells Edwina everything?”

“I know she does” said Myra. “But they were 20 years older than you and Sima when they got together. Maturity has some serious advantages.”

“I thought about calling her tonight” said Chris.

Myra whisked in the cocoa, the aroma plunging her into a memory of biking with Gillam, stopping at a tiny cafe for chocolate and a rest.

“You think I should call her?” asked Chris.

“I think whatever you do with her is right” said Myra. “I'm not just shining you on, I really mean it. Your gut is firing on all cylinders these days.”

“As opposed to when?” said Chris with a grin at last. “Was I that clueless before cancer made me come to my senses?”

Myra grinned back, handing her a mug. “Don't ask for marshmallows, I don't believe in 'em. Unless you're Leah.”

“Let's go to my room” said Chris. Myra left the pan on the stove. They shut the door and leaned against the wall, their legs under the comforter. The wall felt like ice against Myra's back. Probably sheetrock over a log core she thought.

By the time they finished their mugs, Myra was drowsy again. Chris slid down into the bed and said “You can stay if you want.” Myra put her mug next to the begonia and felt a twinge about Ginny – but at least the door was open, she'd stay warm. She dropped off as Chris's arm came around her waist.

© 2009 Maggie Jochild.

1 comment:

kat said...

I've got a question/random thought that I'd like to email you, but when I click the "email" link in your profile, bad computer things happen....could you remind me what your email address is?