If Only

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COLE SALADINO/THRILLIST

 

Johnny Harris was no truth teller. He wasn’t a compulsive liar, it was just that he stretched the facts and embellished the details. He was a storyteller. Maybe a few generations earlier he’d be right at home, sitting on the front porch of a dry-goods store, shooting the breeze with his friends. In those days there was no harm in exaggeration. But now, inflating his importance to the whole world had consequences.

“How would you describe me, Kelley?” He stepped back and let his best friend since sixth grade take a better look at him.

“You’re a guy, whatta you mean, J? You look just like everybody else we know.”

“Yeah, but what makes me different, different than everyone else?”

“Don’t go all metro on me, J. What do you want me to say? What’s this for?”

“I need an edge for my profile. Just to say that I’m five feet ten and weigh one hundred seventy-five, or that I have black hair—that’s boring. I don’t want average.”

“You can’t change the facts, J.”

Johnny’s phone played his ringtone All Day. “It’s my mom.”

“What? She can’t yell down the stairs?”

“Gotta go to work, Kelley. Walk me to the subway.”

“Didn’t you tell me you quit your job two weeks ago?”

“Yeah, I quit, but I didn’t tell her: she’ll go nuts.”

“I’ll say. Mrs. Harris wants her baby boy out of the basement,” Kelley laughed.

“It’s a family room, I don’t live in a cellar.”

“Well, thanks for letting me crash last night in whatever this is.” Kelley glanced across the remnants of cold pizza that Johnny’s golden lab was finishing off. “I have a class at ten, so I’ll walk you to the station. Is your mom still making your breakfast, or is she on strike this week?”

Johnny looked at his phone. “She’s pissed. Let’s stop at Starbucks.”

“Yeah, metro for sure. Sign number two: when Dunkin is no longer good enough. So let me get this straight: you have been pretending to go to work for two weeks?”

“Outside.” Johnny whispered.

“How’s my favorite guy doing at Brooklyn Law School?” Johnny’s Mom looked past her son and walked over to Kelley to give him a hug hello.

“Not bad, Mrs. Harris, and you?”

Mrs. Harris took a deep breath and launched into a list of ‘if onlys’: If only Johnny had studied more in high school. If only Johnny didn’t get caught shoplifting. There were at least twenty ‘if onlys’. Without them Johnny would be at Harvard Law, where his father had graduated.

“Going to be late, Mom,” he pushed Kelley toward the front door.

“At least you have a job,” Mrs. Harris called after him as the two young men left the room.

When they got onto Remsen Street, they joined a dog walker, three nannies with carriages, and a stream of people who looked intent on getting someplace.

“She also has a list of at leasts,” Johnny laughed. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a well-worn paperback. “You see this, Kelley,” he tapped the cover with his left hand, “what do you think it is?”

Kelley kept walking. He was trying to check out the girl who had just passed them. She was wearing a blue sleeveless mini dress.

“Aphrodisiac,” Johnny said as he continued to tap the book.

The girl turned right and they were going left on Hicks.

“What?” Kelley said.

“Fly paper.”

“What do you mean?” Kelley looked at the title. “What’s it about?”

“I didn’t read it, but the cover says…” Johnny read the cover review and then flipped inside and read the rest of the quotes while they waited for the light to turn green. “You know, you don’t really need to read anymore.”

“What?”

Johnny pulled the door to Starbucks open and got in line to place his order. “Yeah, do you think anyone wants to listen to a regurgitation of every twist and turn in a plot?”

“Well, don’t you want to get something out of the book for yourself, J?”

“Grande ice.” Johnny laughed. “I get something out of it all right. How’d you think I met that girl from the DR on the subway last month?”

“Small black.” Kelley turned toward his friend. “You’ve got to be kidding, man.”

“No, they think I’m a real intellectual. And in this case,” he pointed to the cover, “sensitive and understanding.”

“Well there you are: your profile.” Kelley started to laugh and the coffee almost came out of his nose.

“I’m thinking of trading this one in at the library today, that’s where I’m headed.”

“Got any bigger plans, like a job interview?”

“Thanks for reminding me, Mom. Hey, I’m not worried. I’ve got some great references from that job. Really. “ He could see that Kelley wasn’t buying it. “It was a political shoot out. I lost. I quit. No hard feelings, that’s what they told me at my exit interview. Reilly told me he would definitely write something good,” Johnny smirked. “He doesn’t want to mess with my Dad.”

“Yeah, but your Dad, when he finds out…?” Kelley took a sip of coffee.

“I’ll have something else down by then for sure. I have connections. Going to the Harvard Club later.”

Johnny kept walking, but Kelley stopped. “You’re a piece of work, you know that?”

“How else you think I’m going to find a job.” Johnny raised his hand for a high-five. “Later.” He turned toward the Borough Hall subway entrance, tossed his empty cup in the trash and picked up speed to match the rest of the pedestrians.

The crowd heading for downtown Brooklyn exited and Johnny stepped into the subway car. At 4th Street he pulled out his paperback and followed a young woman off the train and into the Number One going uptown. He couldn’t catch her eye; she was staring at a pregnant woman sitting in front of her.   The girl maneuvered around him and got off the train ahead of him at Forty-second Street.

 

The main branch of the public library was an enormous limestone building filling an entire square block of Fifth Avenue. Two stone lions stood guarding the steps leading to the main door.  Johnny pulled one of the doors open and headed for the information desk.

“Got any recommendations this week, Emily? Anything new on the bestseller list? I’m looking for something for my sister.” Johnny grinned at the young woman behind the desk. Emily the librarian, Johnny thought, could she be anymore of a cliché? Her brown shirt matched her hair and helped to make her disappear into the woodwork: invisible until spoken to.

“How did she like the one I suggested to you last week?”

Johnny did have an older sister, but not one he gave books to. His sister had pretty much ignored him for most of his life. She was still useful to him though.

“Very moving,” Johnny quoted the inside flap to Emily. “The writer really understands the female psyche.”

“So true,” Emily sighed. “You read it too?”

“I’m meeting my sister at the Harvard Club for lunch, promised her I would bring her something new to read,” Johnny ignored Emily’s question.

She adjusted her glasses and sat up straight. “You went to Harvard?”

“Loved Cambridge and Boston. Fantastic experience.”

“Well,” Emily cleared her throat, “I know of something she might like.” Emily wrote on the small pad in front of her and gave the top sheet to Johnny. “Take this to the circulation desk. I’ll be curious to see what your sister thinks of this one.”

 

“Here’s the book.” The man behind the desk pushed a thick hard cover volume across the desk. “This number here, the one you put on your request,” he pointed to the slip Johnny had filled in for the book Emily suggested, “ this is a telephone number.”

Johnny started to laugh as he picked up the book. “Sorry, I think I made a mistake. Is this available in paperback?”

“No.”

“I guess it’s not the one I want.” He pushed the book away, turned around and went back to the table he had staked out for the morning.

 

Johnny had bounced around a few private schools before he graduated from high school; he managed to get through Hunter College. His father had gotten him the job as a para-legal with the hopes he would some day “snap out of it”.

Johnny had his laptop open and was staring at his resume. They don’t make it easy for anyone these days. There are too many ways of checking this information, he thought. Searching Google for “what do employers look for in background checks?” he found a list of items on “good-hire.com”.

He went into the lobby and used his cell phone to call the records office of his alma mater.

“We will send you a copy of your candidates dates of attendance and degrees once you send us the required form.”

“I’m interested in the clubs and extra curricular activity during his time at school,” said Johnny.

“Oh, we don’t provide that information, sir. You would have to contact those organizations individually. Is there anything else?”

“No, I’ll fill out the request. Thanks for your help.” Johnny hung up the phone. “Bingo!” he said and went back to the table.

Johnny typed into the search engine: Core skills for being research assistant in publishing.

 When he finished adding those skills to his resume, along with various clubs and activities that would indicate his personality and interest in publishing, he closed the laptop.

 

The Harvard Club had changed their rules a few years ago. There were too many non-Crimson types wandering in off the street. They now required people to have an ID and to sign in at the front desk. Johnny had taken his father’s card, made a copy and erased Class of ’65. He inserted ‘12 and added his own photo. It was a good enough facsimile of the ID to flash to the attendant at the front desk.

“Nice day.” Johnny ran up the steps with his gym bag slung over his shoulder. He had been coming to the Harvard Club for over a year; everyone recognized him.

“Too hot for me, the summer uniform is still not cool enough. Have a good work-out,” the doorman said.

 

The locker-room was empty. Johnny changed into his shorts and a tee shirt and went into the gym. Bending over to change the weights on the press, he straddled the pole, squatted and took a deep breath before pushing eighty pounds to his shoulder and then over his head. He did twelve reps and took a break to work on his legs.

“I’ve been watching you lift.” An older man approached him.

Johnny didn’t say anything.

“You have a great routine. Yeah, I use to be able to do a drill myself. Then I tore my shoulder and, well, you know how that goes: first one thing and then the other.” He made a deep laugh and stared at Johnny.

Johnny didn’t say anything.

“I’ve seen you here before, a few times. Great facilities, no?”

Now he was waiting for an answer.

“Crimson’s the best,” Johnny said.

The man looked as old as his father, thick grey hair that was matted with sweat. For someone who wasn’t lifting he was trim and chiseled, Johnny thought. He looked away hoping the man would leave him alone.

“How long is your work-out?” the man continued.

“Got another hour at least, just started.”

“I noticed,” he smiled. “What house were you in?”

Johnny didn’t register that he was asking where he lived at Harvard. “…South House,” he said after a pause.

“You mean Cabot, don’t you? It hasn’t been South House since ’85.”

Johnny started to laugh nervously. “Gee, I am turning into my dad. He called Cabot, South House the entire time I was an undergraduate.”

“Got ya.” the man laughed. I won’t interrupt your routine. I’m off to the treadmill. My name is Wallace Merritt, Class of ’65, South House,” he smiled and put out his hand.

Johnny shook his hand. He starting coughing and raised his hand to his mouth as he said John Harris. Then clearly: “Class of ‘2012”.

“Hmmm. My son would have been 2012, but he never made it.” The man turned and walked away.

Johnny went over to the leg press machine and set it for 200 pounds. As he pressed, he knew he would have to avoid Wallace Merritt.

 

“I thought you might end up in here,” a voice said from the bench on the other side of the steam room.

Johnny couldn’t see who it was, but he got a cold chill as he entered the one hundred degree room. He started to turn around.

“Don’t leave, I want to talk to you,” Wallace Merritt said.

“I…” Johnny started.

“I could get you thrown out of here.” The man snapped his fingers. “But I won’t, I know your dad.” Wallace patted the bench and motioned through the steam for Johnny to sit next to him. “I should say, I knew your dad. How is he? Still alive? Still senior partner at White and Case?” He didn’t let Johnny answer. “Sure he is, and I bet he is still a liar too?”

“What do you mean, liar?”

“Your father got away with a lot when he was in school. That’s what I’m saying. I bet you get away with a lot too. Chip off the old block, right?”

Johnny didn’t answer. His eyes had adjusted to the room. They were alone and he could see Wallace looking at him.

“I won’t bite you, not yet anyway,” he patted the bench next to him.

“Why didn’t your son graduate Harvard?”

“He died.”

“Sorry, I…”

“Save it, kid. He died in a car accident on his nineteenth birthday. We could go for a drink and I could tell you all about it, if you really are interested in anything but yourself.”

Johnny turned and faced the door.

“What, I hurt your feelings? Well that’s  different. You could never hurt Jack Harris’ feelings, if your Dad had any that is. Don’t go.”

“Why should I stay, your just going to get me kicked out. What’s the point?”

Johnny thought the worst that could happen would be being thrown out of the club. Wallace would never call his father, not with the way he talked about him.

“Maybe we could be useful to each other.”

Johnny sat on the facing bench. “I am looking for a job,” he blurted out nervously.

Wallace got up and stood in front of Johnny. His towel slipped off and fell to the floor; he picked it up and put it around his waste.

“It’s me that is going to get the favor first, kid.” The drink offer still stands. I’ll see you at Twenty-One Club in thirty minutes if you’re curious.”

Johnny didn’t say anything.

“Think about it kid, take a shower and cool off before you go out in the heat…think about it.”

Of course Johnny was curious. Maybe the towel dropping to the floor was just an accident. Maybe he could get me a job. Just going to listen. What’s the harm? I can always leave, he thought.

The Twenty-One Club was eight blocks away, just far enough for Johnny to change his mind a few times. He stopped and checked his phone messages and saw that Kelley had left a text about their plans for later. So he told Kelley what he was doing.

“What do you mean your going for drinks?” Kelley texted.

“He wants to see my resume and talk about my future.”

“Sounds weird, man, gotta go into class.” Kelley ended.

Johnny stopped walking and turned toward Broadway. Maybe I can catch a movie. He looked at the time on his phone. What could I possibly do for this guy? He thought. But he could do something for me, yeah, maybe he’s lonely, maybe I remind him of his son.

He turned around and continued up Sixth Avenue.   When he reached the corner of 53th street he saw statues of little white jockeys holding rings, one on each step going up to and across the wrought iron railing that surrounded the second floor terrace of the Twenty-One Club.

He went down three steps to the entrance and opened the door to the restaurant. It took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the darkness and then he saw the maître-d in front of him.

“Wallace Merritt,” Johnny informed the small man.

Wallace was sitting at the bar with a drink. “Didn’t think you would show, kid.” He turned as Johnny said down next to him.

“Here,” he went into his jacket and pulled out his wallet. “My card, just so you know who I am.”

The card read: Wallace Merritt, CEO, Star Communications, 1200 Avenue of Americas, New York, NY 10019.

Johnny was impressed, but just nodded, and slipped the card into his back pocket.

The bartender approached them and smiled. “Sorry, got to check your ID,” he said to Johnny.

“Yeah, you can’t be too careful these days.” Johnny shot a look at Wallace as he took his driver’s license out and ordered a gin and tonic.

Wallace didn’t say anything for a while. He stirred the ice in his drink with a small plastic straw. Finally he looked at Johnny and said: “I’ve been thinking while I was sitting here nursing this drink. If only my son were alive, well, I wouldn’t have bothered you today.”

Johnny didn’t say anything. He took a deep breath and took another sip of his gin and tonic.

“Life is funny, you expect certain things to happen…” he paused, “you don’t expect your kid to die before you do. That’s not the way it supposed to happen.”

“How did it happen?” Johnny asked.

“You really want to know?” he continued, “late at night, fog, too much liquor, winding road, and a tree. In that order.”

“I am sorry, Mr. Merritt. You must miss him. What is it you want me to do for you?”

“Call me Wallace, son.”

Johnny flinched and waited for him to continue.

“My mother is dying.” He raised his hand to stop Johnny from talking. “Oh, it’s okay, she had a great life, she’s ninety-five. Patrician princess that’s what she is. Now she can’t remember anything,” Wallace took another sip and signaled the bartender for another round.

“Not for me Mr., I mean, Wallace, still working on this one.” Johnny looked at the drink in front of him.

“I want you to come for a ride with me.” He shook his head and made sure the bartender gave Johnny a second drink.

“I don’t know. I have plans tonight.”

“Well, we all have plans, don’t we,” he laughed. “Then life happens,” he kept laughing. “Break them, son. I need you to be by my side today. I want to visit my mother and I don’t want to go alone.”

“I guess I could change my plans. I need to tell my friend what I’m doing.”

“Make it up.”

“Why would you say that?” Johnny asked.

“Why does it matter where you are going, you’ll be with me…and my mother,” Wallace added. “She is in a nursing home near Tarrytown in Westchester, really nice place, about an hour north of here in the country. It has a view of the Hudson.” Wallace continued to talk about his mother and describe the bucolic location of where she lived.

“I don’t know, seems like a long way from here. I live in Brooklyn Heights.”

“The sun sets at eight, you’ll be home before it gets dark if we leave soon.”

“What’s the name of the place, Wallace?”

“Sleepy-Hollow Meadows. Sounds nice and cool on such a hot day, doesn’t it?”

“Well, I guess.” Not such a big favor after all, Johnny thought. I can talk about what kind of job I want on the drive. “Are we leaving now?”

“Sure thing, let me call my driver. Meet me in a few minuets the lobby.”

 

Johnny went to the men’s room and texted Kelley that he was close to getting a job. “Yeah, the guy I met at the Harvard Club. Right. And guess where I am now? THE—Twenty–One Club. We are talking about my career.”

“Get real, Johnny. Where the hell are you? We’re meeting up with the guys tonight,” Kelley texted back.

“Really. It’s true, I’m not making this up,” Johnny wrote. The second drink kicked in harder than usual and all of a sudden he was dizzy. “LTR” was all he could type back.

When Johnny walked into the bar to get his gym bag, the bartender motioned to him closer.

“I didn’t want to say anything in front of Mr. Merritt, since your one of his boys, right?

Who?

Well, your license it’s no good, not real, but you know that. “

“Wha? Johnny asked holding on tight to the back a bar chair so he wouldn’t fall.

“Yeah, the guy who has been buying your drinks, sonny. Your friend.” He winked.

“What?”

 

“The car is here, kid. Let’s get going if you want get home tonight.” Wallace had come back into the bar to look for him.”

“I’m not feeling well. I haven’t eaten today. I shouldn’t have had that second drink; it’s really hitting me hard. Don’t think I can make it.”

Wallace took Johnny’s elbow and led him out of the bar. “The fresh air will do you good. You can take a nap on our way there.”

“The bartender was telling me your….” Johnny couldn’t remember what he wanted to say. His legs felt so heavy he had a hard time lifting them.

 

#

 

When Johnny woke up in the back seat of a limo, Wallace was gone. The sun was setting across the river and they were speeding south on the Westside Highway.

“What time is it?” he yelled to the driver. “Where’s the man I was with?”

“It’s seven-thirty, beats me where he is now. Got out of the car a half an hour ago and told me to take you home. Don’t you remember?”

“What’s his name? “

“You don’t know and you expect me to? I pick up people all day and night, never ask questions, just take them where they want to go?”

“Aren’t you his driver?”

“Nah. This is a limo service kid, we pick people up and deliver them.”

“Didn’t you drive us to Westcester earlier today?” Johnny’s head felt as if it were going to explode.

“Nah, just got a call to pick someone up in Tarrytown and drive them to Brooklyn Heights.”

“I think I’m going to be sick.”

“I don’t pass any judgment either.” The diver let the windows down in the rear of the car. “Don’t mess up the car.”

Johnny was looking at him in driver’s rear view mirror. All he could see were his eyes staring ahead at the traffic.

“Did the man say anything aside from to take me home?”

The driver looked up at him in the mirror. “Yeah, he said you were smart kid, you went to Harvard and…”

“And?” Johnny asked.

“And if only you could have seen your grandmother before she died.”

—————————————————————————————————————————————–

 

If Only  is part of a linked short story collection: Getting There – The Claudia Stories five of the stories have been published in various journals.

The above photo is from a post “Writers You Should Absolutely Never Read On The Subway on Thrillist” by James Chrisman @james_chrisman2

 

Deeds Not Words

In an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2015 (reviewed here), the images of women marching for the right to vote remind me of all the women who came before us, our grandmothers and great-grandmothers. Those women had a voice to raise, just as our voices were heard last month and all the days to follow. The difference is our ability to vote.

I hope that this month, where we celebrate Women’s History (in the U.S.), we will encounter voices both present and past, those we know and especially those that are waiting to be discovered.
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Deeds Not Words was the rallying cry of the suffragettes. Women’s Rights is a recurring back-story in my novel, The Last Daughter of Elizabeth Light.

 

 

In Chapter Three, Sydney, Australia, Maude Anderson reads to her mother, Caroline, from the London Times.

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It is the story of Emily Davidson throwing herself under the King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby.

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In Chapter Four, Caroline Light speaks to her suitor, Bernard, about her teacher Ada Wells. Later she invites her mother, Martha, to attend a meeting of the Temperance League with Kate Shepard.

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Kate Shepard

In Chapter Five, Christchurch, New Zealand, Mary Müller  speaks to Martha Light about whether she ever thought for herself without first consulting her husband.

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Mary Müller

The ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft in Vindication the Rights of Women, written in 1792, are pressed forward through multiple generations.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. –George Santayana

 

 

More reading:

Sophia: Princess Suffragette

More on Emily Davidson

The Hunger Artist – Marion Dunlop-Wallace

Primary image credit: ALEX BROOK LYNN/THE DAILY BEAST

HerStory Repeats Itself

In 1869, almost twenty-five years before the first woman cast her vote in New Zealand, Mary Müller wrote an appeal to the men of New Zealand. Müller’s argument, as so many arguments that followed hers, was that “without political rights women could not make their full contribution to the progress of the nation”. She signed the article in the Nelson Examiner –“Fémmina” because her husband, a local politician, objected to her views.  Today we stand together and tomorrow we continue to write our letters, proudly signing our names for all to see. Keep Writing.

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Here are the dates by country of universal suffrage:

1893 New Zealand
1902 Australia (1)
1906 Finland
1913 Norway
1915 Denmark
1917 Canada (2)
1918 Austria, Germany, Poland, Russia
1919 Netherlands
1920 United States
1921 Sweden
1928 Britain, Ireland
1931 Spain
1934 Turkey
1944 France
1945 Italy
1947 Argentina, Japan, Mexico, Pakistan
1949 China
1950 India
1954 Colombia
1957 Malaysia, Zimbabwe
1962 Algeria
1963 Iran, Morocco
1964 Libya
1967 Ecuador
1971 Switzerland
1972 Bangladesh
1974 Jordan
1976 Portugal
1989 Namibia
1990 Western Samoa
1993 Kazakhstan, Moldova
1994 South Africa
2005 Kuwait
2006 United Arab Emirates
2011 Saudi Arabia (3)
NOTE: One country does not allow their people, male or female, to vote: Brunei.
1. Australian women, with the exception of aboriginal women, won the vote in 1902. Aborigines, male and female, did not have the right to vote until 1962.
2. Canadian women, with the exception of Canadian Indian women, won the vote in 1917. Canadian Indians, male and female, did not win the vote until 1960. Source: The New York Times, May 22, 2005.
3. King Abdullah issued a decree in 2011 ordering that women be allowed to stand as candidates and vote in municipal elections, but their first opportunity did not come until Dec. 2015, almost a year after the king’s death in January.

The End Is Where We Start From

“The end is where we start from.” T.S. Eliot Little Gidding

As a writer of fiction I am invested in the belief that time travel is possible.

Going backward or forward—or any combination of actions—in story telling is critical to engage the reader. But time can also be an abstraction, even if it is an anchor to the most important moments of our lives.

I first became aware of the effervescence of time while dozing in the front row of a London theatre. My late mother, at my side, also doing a head-nod—after a too heavy English dinner—was equally unimpressed by the play being performed two feet in front of us.

Copenhagen by Michael Frayn had won a Tony and was the hot ticket that year. Unfortunately a discourse on quantum mechanics was too much after a long day of visiting with Mom’s old friends.

Embarrassed? Yes. So I bought the script and continued my examination of time. Reading In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat was also sleep inducing, but the thought of something (a cat in this example) existing in two different states of existence at the same time was more than an interesting time bending story, and, I was already down the rabbit hole. (Illustration above by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland )

Of course, time travel and the notion of other levels of existence have been around for a long time. More reading for me here:  brain pickings.

And it continues…. the movie Arrival is another tour de force on the subject.

 

Inspirational Outlier

Looking at her from a distance of two centuries, you might wonder how Mary Wollstonecraft, so ahead of her time, arrived at her inspiring thesis: Vindication-The Rights of Women. In her day, the late 1700’s, she was an outlier, an independent thinker, who wrote for us, and for that matter, every generation who followed her.

Yes, there have been others: Simone de Beauvoir, Germaine Greer, and Gloria Steinem. Yes, hundreds, if not thousands of others, who knew the same truths, experienced the same issues and fights. They all wrote for us. Some of these books might seem dated, not relevant, or out of touch with today, yet, the news of the latest insult repeats unsolved issues. Mary’s ideas, published in 1792, had a bite. They left a mark on me.

Reading Mary’s biography by Lyndall Gordon, I knew I had the link to the past I was looking for. I had been researching my family history, using stories my mother told me, census reports from Australia and New Zealand, journals, and newspaper clippings . I was elaborating, embellishing, and I was creating a fictional history of women, of mothers and daughters. How far could I, in any good conscience, retreat from the truth and create a fiction that was universal? And then Mary stepped in.

 

My novel The Last Daughter of Elizabeth Light is available on Amazon.

More about Mary later.

 

 

Warning

Jen stubbed her cigarette out on the window ledge. The room behind her was quiet, her stepsisters still sleeping, lay twisted in the cotton sheet that barely covered them: Lucy faced north and Mary south, positions they had negotiated when they were six.

Hart Street was dark; there was only a hint of the morning sky. Jen looked over at her pack of Marlboro Lights. People should have warning labels: Dangerous to your health, Not fit for family gatherings, Unable to keep promises. She held the pack and counted the number of cigarettes left. If she didn’t have one now, the five would get her through the afternoon. The argument last night with her mother had kept her awake; if only her mother knew what she had to do today.

“You need to get away from him, you’re better than he is, don’t you know that?”

Jen’s mother, Maureen, was washing dishes while Jen slowly dried them. Mary and Lucy did their homework at the small table. The kitchen became too crowded when Jen’s brother walked in and opened the refrigerator door.

“You just ate, Billy,” Maureen said. She turned away from her daughter who was drying a glass and faced her son. “Look at you, you’ve grown two inches in the last month. I can’t keep enough food on the table.”

“Sorry, Mom, just wanted something sweet. Do we have any ice cream? It’s so hot tonight.”

“Not in the budget this week.” She looked over at Jen and shook her head.

“Don’t worry Mom, I won’t get fired. I told them I was sick, had the flu, and needed to be out for two days so I wouldn’t infect anyone.” She touched the bruise around her eye.

“Well, I hope they believed you, because you know….”

“I know, Mom. I know you need to cover the bills.”

When Jen’s stepfather walked into the kitchen, she turned so he wouldn’t see her face. If he had seen the black eye, he would have gone looking for Lewis, and he would have taken Billy with him. That’s what Maureen had told her.

“Having a family meeting without me?” He leaned over the table and looked at what the twins were working on. “You girls must be really smart to be able to answer all those questions with this noise.” He smiled at his wife. “I guess you two have learned to block it out?”

“I don’t think so, they keep one ear on our conversation,” Maureen said.

Lucy looked up at her father. “They call it multi-tasking, Daddy.”

“See, honey, I never heard of that, and yet, Lucy and Mary are doing it in front of me,” he laughed. “I’m going back to the game, come on, Billy. Let’s leave the ladies alone in the kitchen.” He motioned to the boy, who moved around the two girls at the table.

Maureen looked at the closed kitchen door. “He had a good day today, Jen. I’m glad he didn’t see your eye.”

Continue reading “Warning”

Moving Day

Lizzie Bower waited on the second floor landing while the next load of furniture was hauled up the stairs. Decisions needed to be made: the contents of her mother’s apartment had arrived on Ellis Street.

“Oh, oh…so who is sending you these things? They are all so—so beautiful!” her landlady shouted up the staircase.

Lizzie didn’t need to see her face, she could imagine Mrs. Thorn’s mouth open as each item marched up the stairs: a five foot gilded lamp from a South Hampton estate sale, a small Chinoiserie desk, an iron Napoleon camp chair with brass arm rests and a leather seat. It was a seemingly endless parade of exotic furniture and boxes whose contents could only be imagined.

“Belated wedding gifts from my Mom,” Lizzie shouted back.

Turning toward the growing piles, Lizzie showed the movers where to place the excess of her mother’s life. The men positioned the alien furniture next to the Goodwill discards that decorated the apartment; they demolished any semblance of balance the room once held.

“Jeeze, whoever packed this … supposed to use the fourteen by fourteens for books, Miss, the little ones, yah know, the ones that say: BOOKS.” The mover gave Lizzie a look as he heaved himself through the door.

“Sorry, my mother…”

Lizzie raised her eyes toward the ceiling; she couldn’t expect him to be interested in the details of her mother’s move to London. It was difficult enough for her to explain her own life, but now she had to come up with a rationale for these castoff pieces of furniture. Slicing open one of the boxes with a knife, she found dirty ashtrays and cigarette butts.

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